An inconvenient truth: Bibi won the popular vote

Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, September 14, 2010. Both won would go on to win the popular vote - Clinton in 2016 and Netanyahu in 2019 - but but not win the election. (US State Department photo/ Public Domain)
Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, September 14, 2010. Both won would go on to win the popular vote - Clinton in 2016 and Netanyahu in 2019 - but but not win the election. (US State Department photo/ Public Domain)

Almost immediately after the results of Israel’s recent elections came in, a consensus began to emerge: A “red card” was handed to Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition. The people voted for a national unity government. With the transfer of the mandate to Blue and White Chairman MK Benny Gantz, perhaps, Netanyahu’s day would finally be done. Yet, the consensus goes, Netanyahu remains focused on clinging to power.

This was at least the message conveyed through numerous headlines and in interviews with left-of-center politicians.

But the inconvenient truth is that despite it all, the results of two elections demonstrate that, in fact, the people still want Netanyahu to lead the country. It might be said that like Hilary Clinton in 2016, Netanyahu won the popular vote, both in the April and in the September elections, even though the Israeli electoral system does not directly count this number.

In the April elections this was clear. Then, the bloc of parties supporting Netanyahu earned an absolute majority of the vote. In terms of the popular vote, this bloc earned 52.67% of the vote. Every person who voted for those parties understood that they were supporting a Netanyahu-led government. (That figure does not include Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party which recently ran jointly with the Likud, since it didn’t declare support for Netanyahu in April.)

In terms of Knesset mandates, this bloc earned 65 out of 120.

As it turned out, Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman chose not to respect those results. Instead, Liberman did what small parties in Israel have been doing for years. He held the coalition-in-formation hostage and demanded more than could be given to him. When it wasn’t granted, he refused to join the coalition, precipitating new elections.

Thus, a party of a mere five mandates, on the verge of not passing the threshold, rendered the results of an election null and void.

But Liberman’s actions and the failure to form a government do not change what the election results showed about who the public wants to lead Israel.

Nor does the fact that after refusing to join Netanyahu’s government and promising to force the creation of a unity government, Yisrael Beytenu earned increased its vote share in the September elections.

Even in the recent elections, the parties openly supporting Netanyahu still earned 46.35% of the vote, while those openly supporting Gantz earned 45.69% of the vote, at most. This assumes support of Arab voters (approximately 10.6% of the vote) for a government led by Gantz and the other IDF generals at the head of his party’s list).

But such support cannot be assumed, making Gantz’s vote-share much lower. When it came to recommend a candidate for prime minister three of 13 of the United Arab List’s members (representing about 2.56% of the vote) would not back him. Meanwhile, the entire United Arab List (10.6% of the total vote) has made clear that while they might support a Gantz government, this is by no means a certainty. Similarly, in a recent survey of the Arab public by the Statnet Institute on behalf of Galatz, only 49% of those surveyed supported a Gantz-led government (assuming Yisrael Beytenu would be in that government), even without the Arab parties actually joining that government. So realistically, support for Gantz in the election fell anywhere between approximately 35% and 43% of the vote.

In terms of mandates too (after all the cancellations and redistributions of votes required by Israel’s electoral system were calculated), the Netanyahu-bloc earned 55, while the Gantz-bloc earned 54 recommendations, but as discussed, the number committed to backing his government is significantly less.

And taking into account the results of the April election, it might even be surmised that if the public was asked to choose a candidate, more than a majority of Yisrael Beytenu voters would vote for Netanyahu over Gantz, as they did just six months earlier.

Of course, Israel’s political system does not allow for a plurality-victory or even a run off. An absolute majority of mandates must be achieved to govern. So to avoid an economically-burdensome and all-around-ridiculous third round of elections, a so-called unity government must be formed.

But such a government would be a matter of efficiency and not the demand of the people.

Less than seven percent of voters chose Yisrael Beytenu, which was the only party that said it would recommend no candidate for prime minister in order to force such a government.

Forcing such a government on the basis of the demands of such a minority party would not reflect the will of the people, but the will of one-man exploiting an unstable system’s weaknesses.

Of course, the will of the people is not the only thing that matters in a democracy. But it is supposed to be its animating feature. Otherwise, what are we doing with these costly, polarizing and destabilizing elections? The fact that the will of the people – which the election results indicate still favors Netanyahu – is not currently the leading factor in government-formation, should be a source of concern to all Israelis who consider themselves supporters of democracy.

Even for those who do not wish to see Netanyahu remain on as prime minister, a process which does not reflect the will of the people will also hinder debate about politicians and their policies. It will lead to a loss of public faith in the political system and its decisions, a process already unfolding with respect to other branches of the government.

And especially if a third round of elections is to be avoided, even in the 11th hour, the fact that the data indicates the public still supports Netanyahu should prompt politicians such as Liberman and Gantz – whom a majority of the public has never supported to lead a government – to take a more compromising tone toward the man the people have chosen time and again.

About the Author
Daniel Tauber is an attorney and a Likud Central Committee member.
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