In my previous article, I discussed Israel’s election results in some detail. I reached (or at least attempted to reach) three main conclusions:

  • Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud did indeed score a “crushing” victory—but only over other right-wing parties that were already members of the governing coalition. The actual strength of the right, left, and center blocs was essentially unchanged from the 2013 election.
  • That said, there does appear to be a long-term, slow trend towards an increasingly strong and influential center bloc in Israeli politics.
  • As had been forecast, Moshe Kahlon’s new Kulanu party finds itself in the position of king-maker: Netanyahu cannot form a governing coalition with only the right and the religious parties, and Kulanu is the only other party that might be willing to join his coalition on its own.

While I classified Kulanu as part of a distinct centrist bloc along with Yesh Atid, some other commentators have classified it—perhaps because Moshe Kahlon himself is a former Likudnik, or perhaps out of wishful thinking—as part of the right, and have thus taken Kulanu’s ten Knesset seats as an indication that the right has gained in strength at the expense of the left (in which they include Yesh Atid). Still other writers have fudged the issue, labeling Kulanu as “center-right” to imply that it could fit into either category—and so we can’t accuse them of being wrong, whatever happens. All these pundits tend to assume that Kulanu’s entry into Netanyahu’s coalition is more or less a given; indeed, even I labeled this as “perhaps the most likely option”. (See, I can fudge too!)

Given Kulanu’s obvious importance in the upcoming coalition negotiations, and given my obsessive need to analyze everything to death the importance of understanding what’s really going on in Israeli politics, I believe that it’s worthwhile to think a little further about how to analyze Israeli election results, and how Kulanu should understand its own position.

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Election results are composite facts, the result of choices made by millions of voters—each with his or her own unique story. We don’t know the details of exactly who voted for whom, or why any given voter switched—or didn’t switch—from Party X to Party Y. It’s even possible that 100,000 people who voted for Meretz in 2013 voted for Jewish Home this time, while 100,000 Jewish Home voters switched to Meretz—an event that would be rather amazing given the ideological distance between the two parties, but would be completely invisible in terms of the final results. In reality, however, we can understand a lot from the aggregate election results, without worrying overmuch about individual voter decisions, by applying the Law of Parsimony (a.k.a. Occam’s Razor, a.k.a. Keep It Simple, Stupid). The reasoning runs like this:

  • People vote based on their ideology, community affiliation, their judgment regarding the competence and other virtues (or lack of same) of the various party bigwigs, and “strategic” concerns—for example, I might vote for a party I don’t love in order to prevent a party I really dislike from taking power. While voters may be influenced by changeable factors (such as who is attempting to lead the Labor Party this month), the main elements of voter preference are fairly static: people do not usually alter their religious, ethnic, and social affiliations; and while thought patterns and attitudes do mutate over time, they rarely change rapidly unless there is some very dramatic reason for them to do so.
  • Voters are thus relatively conservative in their choice of party—either sticking with the party they voted for last time, or else switching to another party within the same bloc. When voters do switch blocs, they will usually switch to an “adjacent” bloc: that is, leftists may decide to vote for a centrist party or vice versa, but only rarely will people jump straight from one extreme to the other, given a reasonable centrist alternative.
  • If we assert a general change in the electorate (e.g. a shift to the right or left), we should expect to see this change reflected in the results for multiple political parties.
  • Our explanations of election results should reflect what we know about real-world events, including campaign strategies as well as other things (wars, corruption investigations, and so on) that are likely to affect people’s voting behavior.

This is really just a verbose way of saying that we should exercise a little common sense. Any major shift in the electorate’s political leanings should manifest itself in the balance of power between clearly-defined blocs of parties; and conversely, we should not assume major shifts in ideology when we can explain electoral changes as mere tactical vote-shuffling within blocs.

In last week’s election, both the Zionist left and the non-Haredi right achieved very small gains—the right picked up one seat, and (after absentee votes were counted and Meretz gained a seat at the expense of the United [Arab] List) the Zionist left gained two seats. (One factor to explain these small changes may be increased voter turnout, as well as a lower number of votes wasted on small parties than we saw in 2013.) These minor shifts do not change the big story for both the right and the left: despite all the campaigning, all the bad blood between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, failed negotiations with the Palestinians, Iran, a war in Gaza, ISIS near our borders, and Bottle-deposit-ghazi, both the right and the left failed to gain or lose any significant strength compared to 2013.

Similarly, the Haredi parties came close to maintaining their strength in terms of total votes cast, despite their dramatic fall from 18 Knesset seats to 13. Most of their loss in seats can be accounted for by Yachad’s failure to pass the electoral threshold; it’s possible that one additional lost Haredi seat was the result of some Haredi voters, perhaps alienated by the split between Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai, switching to Kulanu. (This makes a degree of sense, since Kulanu, like Shas, stresses social-justice issues, and is headed by a well-liked Sephardi from a humble economic background.)

In short (OK, I’ll admit it—I don’t really do “short” very well), the only significant change in Israeli voting patterns in 2015 was the fall of Yesh Atid from 19 seats (which, along with the two seats of the now-deceased Kadima, made up a 21-seat centrist bloc in 2013) to 11, and the rise of Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu from nonexistence to 10 seats. Perhaps the 21-MK center bloc lost one seat on the left to the Zionist Union and gained one seat from Shas; but given the total lack of other significant shifts in inter-bloc voting patterns, the only reasonable conclusion to draw is that Kulanu picked up a bunch of Yesh Atid/Kadima voters, splitting the centrist vote but otherwise precisely maintaining center bloc’s strength. There is nowhere else the vast majority of Kulanu’s votes could have come from other than Yesh Atid—nobody else lost the votes that Kulanu picked up.

This conclusion is further supported by the fact that Kulanu maintained its predicted electoral strength despite Netanyahu’s last-minute “gevalt strategy” to draw right-wing voters from other right-wing parties to the Likud and thus increase the odds that he would be tasked with building the next government. Kulanu voters, exactly like Yesh Atid voters, didn’t budge, while Yisrael Beitenu and Jewish Home voters switched to Likud in large numbers. This is a pretty strong indication that Kulanu’s voters did not consider themselves to be supporters of the right wing.

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Clearly, this has important implications for Kulanu; and I assume that as a professional politician (and wannabe Finance Minister—which I’d think has to mean that he likes numbers), Moshe Kahlon can figure this stuff out as well as I can. If essentially all Kulanu’s votes came from former Yesh Atid voters who continue to think of themselves as basically centrist, then Kulanu cannot afford to subsume its identity within a narrow right-wing/Haredi coalition, even if Kahlon can get some key jobs for himself and his associates. If he enters such a coalition, Kulanu becomes, in effect, Likud-Lite—and that’s obviously not what his voters voted for; when the next election comes, they will abandon Kulanu, and either return to Yesh Atid or else find themselves another shiny new centrist party to vote for.

Of course, we don’t know what’s being said in private; but there are at least some indications that Kahlon is thinking along these lines, and that as a result he is willing to force the issue and combine forces with Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction to form a “fighting center” within a (presumably) Haredi-less right-center coalition.

Things may get interesting around here…