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Why Netanyahu's win isn't that dramatic

- March 18, 2015

Likud party supporters react after hearing exit poll results in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2015. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for new elections in December 2014, he argued that he needed a stronger Likud Party that would enable him to govern more effectively – without the roadblocks thrown his way by the coalition partners on whom he depended. It appears that he has succeeded in this endeavor. While the results of the yesterday’s elections are not yet final, it appears that the Likud has significantly increased the number of seats it will have in the next Knesset from 18 seats to around 30, enabling it to be a relatively more dominant centerpiece of whatever coalition eventually emerges.
Netanyahu and some Israeli pundits have interpreted the results as a dramatic victory for the Likud and a strong mandate for Netanyahu’s right-wing government. This interpretation, however, is largely an artifact based on the failure of the pre-election polls and the exit polls, which had primed the public to expect a Likud defeat. A closer look at the vote shares of the various blocs in Israeli politics in this election compared to the last election in 2013 shows a much more modest change.
Consider the following table, which shows the results of the elections not by Knesset seats, which are allocated according to a D’Hondt method of party list proportional representation, but by the actual vote share received by each bloc in Israeli politics in 2013 and in 2015. A direct comparison of party-to-party votes is difficult given the entry of new parties and the splits and mergers of existing parties.
Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 5.17.38 PMThis comparison suggests that the results reflect a consolidation within the right wing of Israeli politics rather than a decisive swing to the right. The increase in the right’s vote share can be readily explained by a shift of voters from the hawkish religious parties (ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists). There is little reason to believe that there is significant overlap between the constituencies of these religious-right parties and those of either the left or Arab parties. It is reasonable to assume however that voters from these religious parties migrated to the Likud rather than other parties. This shift would account for 87 percent of the rise in the vote share by the right bloc. The relatively small remainder likely came from the center parties, which also lost support. Notably, when centrist voters shifted to vote for another bloc, they largely turned to the left parties rather than to the Likud. The increased vote share of the left is especially significant given the rise in the vote share of the Arab parties which, while likely largely a result of increased turnout relative to 2013, also cost the left votes.
What does this mean in practice? As the reports of opening coalition talks suggest, Israel appears to be headed for a narrow government composed of the right, Kulanu – a new centrist party led by former Likud Minister Moshe Kachlon – and the religious parties. A so-called “grand coalition” composed of the right, Kulanu and the left is theoretically possible but relatively unlikely. Such a government would be interpreted by voters of the right and the left as a betrayal. Moreover, there are significant ideological and policy differences between them about economic policy and the relationship with the Palestinians that are difficult to reconcile.
While there are few ideological obstacles to the formation of a narrow religious-right government, it is unlikely to be stable. If the current allocation of votes to actual Knesset seats holds, the coalition would number around 66 members of the Knesset. Although this number meets the 61 seats needed to sustain a coalition, the survival of such a government would depend on its ability to maintain the support of each and every coalition partner. Such a coalition has traditionally led to weak, unstable governments that struggled to make firm or consistent decisions.
This is likely to come to a head as soon as discussions of the budget begin. Kulanu ran entirely on a program promising a redistribution of resources to the middle and lower middle classes. Some of the resources to do so may come from deregulation, taking economic rents away from monopolies and other efficiencies. However, significant government investment in the human capital and material infrastructure of Israeli society and a corresponding shift in the allocation of Israel’s budgetary priorities would also be needed to significantly decrease the cost of living or make a real change in the lives of the Israeli middle and lower middle class. However, a narrow religious-right government is unlikely to be able to carry out such a reallocation of resources. As a condition to their membership in the coalition, the religious parties will likely insist on the continued allocation of, if not increase in, significant resources to the ultra-Orthodox population and to the settlements. Moreover, Netanyahu is likely to continue his refusal to consider cutting the defense budget, increasing the deficit or raising taxes – a position which helped trigger the March 17 elections in the first place. This means that the long-term stability of the government essentially depends on one of the coalition parties giving up a core aspect of its platform. While such a government could limp along, a more likely outcome is continued governmental instability.
This outcome is made even more probable given the sharp rightward turn that enabled Netanyahu to consolidate the support of the Israeli right. A religious-right coalition that depends on the support of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party, a right-wing religious party that supports Israeli annexation of the West Bank, would be unable to survive if it begins negotiations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. As a result, with this coalition, Netanyahu is going to have a hard time backing away from his campaign pledge that no Palestinian state would be established under his watch. There is likely to be increased pressure, however, on Israel to move forward in negotiations with the Palestinians – either from the Palestinians as they continue to exercise their outside options of increased recognition, from the United States or from the European Union. Netanyahu is therefore likely to face a choice between somehow engaging in negotiations – and thereby destabilizing his government – or refusing to do so at the cost of increasing Israel’s isolation in the world; isolation that, if combined with increasing E.U. sanctions, would drastically impact Israel’s economy and shrink the pie available for redistribution. This scenario would only exacerbate the looming political fight over Israel’s budget.
In either case, we can expect Israel to face new elections in the not-too-distant future. Rather than providing increased stability as expected by Netanyahu, the election results highlight the persistent deep divisions that characterize Israeli politics and society; divisions that are magnified by its political system. So, get ready to do all of this again in a couple of years.
Nadav Shelef is the Harvey M. Meyerhoff Professor of Israel Studies and an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of “Evolving Nationalism: Homeland, Religion and Identity in Israel” (Cornell University Press, 2010).