Israel’s Elections – we know nothing

As Israel stands ready for another General Election, there’s a lot we don’t yet know about the coming campaign and poll. Anyone predicting how this election will go is just guessing.

We don’t know what parties are running

At the last election, Likud Beiteinu won 31 seats. But there is no Likud Beiteinu anymore – it was a temporary merged list between the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties.

In the last election, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, a joint list of the National Religious Party and the National Union, did pretty well. But the National Union members of Jewish Home have made it clear that they’re not happy with Mr Bennett, and might well break away before the next election.

Then there’s the question of mergers or joint lists between big parties. There have been rumours of a joint list between Likud and Jewish Home, for example. Some have suggested that Tzipi Livni should join forces with Yesh Atid, as was widely discussed before the last election.

Smaller parties are even more likely to have to merge. At the last election, three Arab parties ran and got seats, but since then the Knesset election threshold has been raised to 4%, making it very hard for all three parties to win seats. Other mergers are likely. Does Israel need three Green parties?

There are also new parties that will doubtless spring up. What will the far-right, who ran as Otzma L’Yisrael last election, do this time? Will there be other new parties that make an impact like the Pensioners’ Party did in 2006, coming from nowhere to win 7 seats?

And finally there’s Moshe Kahlon’s party, which is predicted to be a huge factor and get lots of seats but doesn’t have a name, a platform or any members.

We don’t know which candidates are running

Israel runs a closed-list Proportional Representation system, which means people can only vote for a party. Each party chooses the order of its candidates on its list, effectively guaranteeing that for big parties some specific candidates will get elected, some people definitely won’t, and others have a chance. If someone is number 38 on a party list they aren’t getting a seat.

Each party has its own way of deciding its list. For some, like Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid, the list is drawn up by the party leadership.

For the older parties, like Likud, Labour and Jewish Home, the list is at least partly decided by a Primary election among party members.

Primaries are messy businesses, involving vote-trading, deals, allegations of corruption and opportunities for political retribution. The party leader can often end up with a list that he or she dislikes.

This is arguably what happened to Benjamin Netanyahu last election when his primary produced a Likud list that was substantially more right-wing than he is, with more centrist Likud figures losing their spots and their seats. We don’t know what Likud’s list will look like for a 2015 election, but the primary election is due in January. Might it produce a list that is more right-wing than the typical Likud voter?

Similarly, there have been grumblings from some Jewish Home party activists that its more-moderate MKs have been given prominence over its more hardline members. If the party members decide to promote more hardline religious candidates in the party primary, it could damage the party’s appeal to younger secular and traditional voters.

Even those parties that have hand-picked lists will see changes. Might some Yesh Atid MKs decide that they’ve had enough of politics? Who will Mr Liberman promote to his number-two spot now that Yair Shamir is standing down?

And, of course, the most important list is probably Moshe Kahlon’s. This new party might well have the biggest impact on the coming election, and is polling at anywhere from 6-12 seats, but we have no idea who would sit in those seats apart from Mr Kahlon himself. Will it be socially-minded left-leaning types who might otherwise have joined Labour? Technocrats who might otherwise have joined Yesh Atid? People focused on poverty and deprivation who are closer to Shas than anyone else? What will its MKs think about security, peace, territory, settlements, minorities? We have literally no idea.

We don’t know how many votes each party will get

Israeli opinion polls suck. I’ve written about this before, and it’s still true.

There are a lot of reasons why they suck. Multiple parties mean that you need larger sample sizes to pick up changes. Weightings are difficult in a highly-segmented society. With new parties it’s hard or impossible to adjust for ‘don’t-know’ responses, with most pollsters not even trying and excluding them altogether, resulting in an overstatement of parties that attract committed voters versus those which attract more floating voters. They suck because methodologies are closed so we can’t even get into the data.

Take Yesh Atid, for example. At the last election, the party won 19 seats. Today’s polls put it on anywhere from 6-13 seats with an average of about 10-11, so it’s widely reported that Yesh Atid stands to lose about half of its seats in an election.

However, going into the last election Yesh Atid was polling at an average of 11 seats. As I said, it actually won 19.

So is Yesh Atid doing badly or about the same as last time? We don’t know. We were never told how polling companies screwed up their vote last election and we don’t know if they’ve made adjustments this time. Maybe the companies have overcompensated and the real position of the party is even worse. Maybe they haven’t made any major changes and things will play out like last time. We don’t know.

This uncertainty hangs over all the polling numbers. The official margin of error for many Israeli polls is 3-4.5%, which is an enormous range. UK national polls, for comparison, are 2% and the difference is less important with less parties and a constituency system.

And, of course, all of this polling is without anyone knowing what parties are actually running or who their candidates are (see above).

We don’t know when the elections will be

This is a temporary situation, but we don’t have a date for elections. Most people guess that they will be in March, before Passover but late enough to allow the party machines to spin up and for there to be a medium-length election campaign. That would mean that the new Government might well not be in place until May. Already, though, there are people pushing for the election to be earlier.

We don’t even know if there will be early elections

Tomorrow the Knesset will debate a motion to dissolve itself, triggering new elections. The motion was proposed by Labour and Meretz earlier this week, and at the moment it seems that Likud will vote to support it.

But a day is a long time in politics, and we’ve been here before. Unlikely though it seems, there could still be a deal to avoid elections if the Haredi parties change their minds about joining a revamped coalition. So far, they have said they prefer to join a new coalition after elections.

The most likely option remains that the Knesset will dissolve tomorrow. But even this is still not certain yet.

* * *

Over the coming months these questions will be answered. Tomorrow we’ll learn whether the Knesset will actually dissolve. Within a couple of weeks we should know the date of the election. By the end of January most of the big party lists will be selected or elected, and new parties or mergers will have to happen long enough before the election to be able to submit their final lists. By then the polls, for all of their errors, will at least be asking the right questions about the right parties.

But for now, we don’t know anything.

About the Author
Arieh Kovler is a writer, political analyst and communications consultant. Before his aliya he was the Head of Policy and Research for Britain's Jewish Leadership Council and director of the Fair Play Campaign. He is a media commentator and founder of the Hat Tip.
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