As a gift to anyone fascinated by the mulishness of voters, I have analyzed the last two election outcomes, which seem to have yielded nearly identical results despite the high drama of the pandemic year.
Could it possibly be true that so few changed their minds that a 62-58 win by the parties opposing Benjamin Netanyahu in 2020 morphed merely to 61-59 in 2021? At first blush, it looks like the answer is yes, that is how identity-driven and entrenched Israeli politics appears to be.
The anti-Netanyahu so-called Change Camp (counting Likud rebel Gideon Saar’s party and both Arab parties) fell from 50.8% on 2,332,733 votes in 2020 to 50.2% on 2,212,880 votes a week ago. Its margin of victory fell from 112,305 votes (2.4% of the valid votes cast in 2020) to 82,190 (1.8% of the valid votes cast in 2021). This is the reason why the opposition’s advantage shrank by one seat.
But delve a bit deeper into the numbers (I offer a shared spreadsheet here) and interesting nuggets begin to stand out.
First, the dramatic decline in the Arab vote prevented a genuine debacle for Netanyahu. The number of valid votes cast fell from 4,590,062 (71.52% turnout) to 4,409,566 (67.43% turnout); in both cases about a half percent were blank or invalid. That decline of 180,496 votes is almost entirely accounted for the fall in Arab turnout.
The Arab party vote fell from 581,507 (12.67% for the Joint List) in 2020 to 379,180 (8.6%) combined for the Joint List and Ra’am in 2021 – a loss of a whopping 202,327 votes caused by a decline in turnout from over 60% to under 50%. Even factoring in that the Likud vote among them rose slightly (perhaps 1% voted for Likud in the wake of Netanyahu’s surprising and historically useful campaign in the sector), this corresponds almost exactly to the overall voter decline. The Jews voted in the same numbers, more or less.
Had the Arabs voted in the same numbers as in 2020 (and the choices stayed the same proportionately), the Knesset margin would have been 66 to 54 in favor of the Change Camp. The opposition would have risen to about 55% and the right would have fallen to 46.2%.
My conclusion is that most Israelis do not want Netanyahu to continue, even without counting the 6.21% who voted for the right-wing Yamina – whose chief Naftali Bennett says Netanyahu should go but which is counted here as part of his bloc anyway. The reasons why the opposition victory is not clear are divisions and the absence of a clear leader.
To begin to fix that, there is overwhelming interest in the center-left to end its self-defeating angst over collaboration with the Arabs, which would in turn encourage Arab citizens to vote in large numbers again. These Arab citizens were plainly demoralized by what was perceived as Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s rejection of their outstretched hand a year ago, when he preferred to join Netanyahu.
They can start by not seeking a “Zionist coalition” (which is laundered Israel-speak for a Jewish coalition with the likes of the not-exactly-Zionist Haredim) and invite the Arab parties into the coalition for real, if they so wish (and hand them the Internal Security portfolio to boot).
(Yet another Change Camp seat was almost certainly lost to Yaron Zalicha’s New economy party, which by falling under the 3.25% threshold threw away 34,860 votes (0.79%) — which is worth exactly one seat and which can be safely assumed to attach to anti-Netanyahu voters. The number of “wasted” votes rose from 36,901 (0.8%) to 65996 (1.5%), and this time hurt the opposition as opposed to the right in 2020.)
But not so fast: that theoretical increase in the Change Camp majority had the Arabs voted with more gusto was largely enabled by Gideon Saar.
Let’s look at the numbers on the center-left. Its vote total, counting Saar, went from 1,751,226 (38.2% of the 2020 total) to 1,833,700 (41.6%); but factor out Saar’s 209,137 votes and you find a decline of 126,000. Since about the same number of Jews voted, it is very reasonable to assume Saar’s 6 seats originated about equally from former Blue and White voters and via a transition from the right – accounting for the better performance fo the Change Camp among Jews.
Everything else amounted for little more than movement within the blocs.
We hear a lot about the decline in the Likud vote – and indeed it logged 285,854 fewer votes (a 21% decline). But the right-religious bloc’s share of the vote stayed almost the same: it fell from 48.4% (2,220,428 votes) to 48.3% (2,130,690 votes) – a decline of 0.1% in the share, having lost 89,738 votes. The bloc did not much budge because of the successful uniting of the far-right into the Religious Zionism party that won 225,494 votes (5.11% of the total); in 2020 extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir ran alone and wasted 19,402 votes for the right (about a half a seat). Essentially, Likud’s lost votes are explained by the rise of the far-right party and Gideon Saar’s new hope party. And the right’s actual share stayed largely the same because of the low Arab turnout.
Governability suffered, if anyone still cares: Likud fell from 36 seats in a bloc of 58 (62% of the bloc) to 30 out of 59 (51%). But in the Change Camp the crystallization was even worse: the largest party, Blue and White, had held 33 of 62 seats (53%), but its breakup left Yesh Atid holding 17 of 59 (28%). That is one reason why so few are confident Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid will be able to form a government, alongside the other divisions and complications in the Change Camp.
Do these shifts equal what one might expect after the genuine drama of the pandemic?
Netanyahu actually used it to stay in power, persuading Benny Gantz to join him in the only apparent unity government to arise anywhere out of the crisis.
The handling of the crisis was not a success; Israel was among the world leaders in infection rates and reigns as national lockdown champion – with the attendant economic damage – because Netanyahu refused targeted closures that would have upset his Haredi allies. This and other favorizing of the Haredim might have raised secular hackles to the point of animating them off their couches and increasing the rather anemic turnout in places like Tel Aviv.
On the other hand, the vaccination effort, for which Netanyahu deserves some credit, was a stupendous success: Israel leads the world in its apparent exit from the disaster.
Did all this somehow cancel out? Does anyone pay attention to the situation around them as they go to vote? Is there any hope of breaking the deadlock if there was a fifth election?
One wonders what it would take to significantly move the Jewish vote. A nuclear holocaust? The coming of the Messiah? A miraculous reunion of the Beatles, two of them restored to life and all four permitted finally to enter?
Perhaps when the Netanyahu bribery trial begins in earnest next week, as the mesmerizing details emerge for all the world to hear.
That last notion was, of course, in jest. One must be realistic.