March 16, 2015

Press Note: Handicapping the March 17 Israeli Elections

By Ilan Goldenberg

In advance of tomorrow’s elections in Israel, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program Director Ilan Goldenberg has written a new Press Note handicapping the election and delineating potential outcomes. Before coming to CNAS in November, Mr. Goldenberg served as Chief of Staff to the Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations at the U.S. Department of State.
 
The Press Note is below:
 
As Israelis head to the polls tomorrow, the outcome of the elections remains highly uncertain. Indeed, given the complexities of coalition formation, it may be weeks after the elections before a new government is seated and the real outcome is known.  There are currently two main parties in the election – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud and the center-left Zionist Union led by Labor party leader Isaac “Buji” Herzog and Tzipi Livni.  It takes 61 seats in the Knesset to form a ruling coalition.  In the final polls, the Herzog/Livni camp seemed to be building slight momentum, averaging 24-25 seats to Netanyahu’s 21.  The remaining seats are distributed among a broad set of smaller parties across the ideological spectrum.   
 
Both of the main parties have some natural ideological partners, which would take their blocs up to 35-40 seats.  There is then a center and religious bloc of roughly another 30-40 seats that is likely to go to parties that might be willing to align with either Netanyahu or Herzog.  These parties are more ideologically aligned with the right, but some of their leaders have had tensions with Netanyahu in the past that might cause them to hesitate before joining a Likud government.  With 10-13 seats, the Arab-Israeli parties are another wildcard, as they are unlikely to join any coalition but could support Herzog from the outside and block attempts by Netanyahu to form a coalition.
 
The real key is if either Likud or the Zionist Union can establish a four or five seat margin.  If one of them does, they will likely have the first opportunity to form a government, and will be able to use that leverage to bring over some of the center parties and cobble together a coalition.  If there is a virtual tie, then the most likely outcome is a national unity government that includes both Likud and the Zionist Union, but excludes some of the extreme parties on both the left and the right – most notably the settlers represented by Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party.  The open question about such a government is whether it would be a rotating Prime Ministership, or whether Netanyahu would be Prime Minister and Herzog would be Foreign Minister.  This final scenario is probably the preferred outcome for Netanyahu, who would like to keep Bennett out and use Herzog to rebuild bridges to Washington and Europe.  However, it is an outcome that many of Herzog’s supporters in the Labor party are unlikely to accept, as they would sooner see him stay out of the government altogether than join Netanyahu. 
 
The strategy of getting to a four or five seat margin does not necessarily mean that Netanyahu and Herzog are in direct competition for the same votes.  Netanyahu is spending most of his time trying to draw back right wing voters who have migrated to the center-right for economic reasons or far right for ideological reasons.  Throughout the campaign his trump card in this effort was the image that he is the strongest security candidate.  His decision to address the U.S. Congress was not just about Israeli domestic politics, but it was meant to reinforce his security bonafides.  However, it does not seem to have made a significant dent in the polls, and in the final days he has pivoted to a strategy of trying to woo back right wing voters by making the case that if they waste their votes on Bennet or Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu Party, Herzog and Livni will be the next leaders of the Israeli government.
 
Herzog and the Zionist Union’s strongest trump card is the overwhelming disapproval of Prime Minister Netanyahu and a sense that this election must be about change.  But in a fragmented electoral system such as Israel’s, 30% is still enough to be elected Prime Minister.
 
In the final days, Herzog has successfully made the campaign a referendum on Netanyahu.  He is also trying to focus on economic issues – most notably skyrocketing housing prices – to pull Netanyahu voters to the centrist parties and attract more supporters for himself.
 
The challenge for Herzog is twofold.  First, his campaign has been unable to connect with voters on a clear and strong national security message, which for many Israelis is a threshold issue. That may change, however, as in the last couple of weeks there has been an intense attack against Netanyahu by retired military and security officials, most notably former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. The second challenge is that centrist parties – especially Yair Lapid’s “Yesh Atid” (“There is a Future”) is drawing votes away from Herzog.  This makes it more difficult for Herzog to obtain that four or five seat gap with Netanyahu that he needs to make him the undisputed winner.

Mr. Goldenberg is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org, or call 202-457-9409.

  • Ilan Goldenberg

    Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Security Program

    Ilan Goldenberg is Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is a foreign policy and defense expert with ext...