Jonathan Schwartz
Jonathan Schwartz

The Numbers Game

And they are off again: round 4 in Israel’s cycle of elections as Netanyahu desperately seeks to cobble together a majority that will give him immunity from the criminal charges that he faces. Rotation with Gantz? Clear now to all that “with shtickim and trickim” – Bibi never meant for a second to keep this deal. That the country, in the throes of a Corona induced medical and economic crisis, is forced to bumble on without a budget –is of secondary importance to avoiding having to move Sarah from the Balfour Street official residence of the Prime Minister (not passing a budget was key to getting to new elections without Gantz first rotating into the office of Prime Minister).

And whatever criticism one may have of the man – Netanyahu is a master politician.

He took the country to three early election cycles to seek his dream immunity coalition, failed each time, but still clings to power. In round 1 (April 2019), he missed his goal by only about 1,400 votes – the number of votes that would have enabled Bennet and Shaked’s New Right party to get over the Election Threshold (see below), enter the Knesset and join his block of 61.

From the evening the round 3 votes were counted, a round which ended in another dead-lock, he knew what he wanted to do to put together his dream coalition in round 4.

First: divide and break up his main opposition – the center-right Blue and White that achieved 33 seats to the Likud’s 36 seats in round 3 (round 2 they tied 35-35). This was done by enticing Beny Gantz into the so-called “Corona Unity” government with the promise of rotation, splitting Gantz from Lapid and his Yesh Atid faction (who never trusted Bibi from day one) and causing hard feelings among the “cock-pit” members that continue till this day.

Second: divide and break up his minor opposition – the Labor-Gesher-Meretz block that ran as one list in round 3. Easy enough. Orly Levy, always a Likudnik at heart, was an easy catch and the first to defect (now coincidently, she is running on the Likud list in one of Bibi’s three spots that Bibi can designate). Then Labor was split by enabling Gantz to include two of its three MK’s as Cabinet ministers – in the half of the Cabinet reserved for the ministers designated by Gantz, the “Alternative Prime Minister”, leaving lingering animosity between Labor and Meretz.

Third: Ensure that no votes from the right-wing block are lost. In round 3 of this election cycle, Itamar Ben Gvir’s “Jewish Power” list took in close to 0.5% of the total vote which were lost to Netanyahu’s block as Jewish Power fell far short of the Election Threshold. Never again. This time Bibi worked intensively behind the scenes: Stage 1 – separate Bezalel Smotrich from his ally, Naftali Bennet; Stage 2 -when Smotrich and his Religious Zionist party realized that they are looking at the Election Threshold of 3.5% from the wrong side, he exerted “moderate physical pressure” on Smotrich to force Smotrich to include both Ben Gvir’s Kahanist Jewish Power faction and the homophobic Noam party on his list, including by reserving a spot on the Likud list for Ophir Sofer, a person chosen by Smotrich. So now we have a wonderful party that goes from the loony religious “in God’s name, annex all the West Bank (without giving rights to the Palestinians who happen to live on the land)” right, through to the Kahanist fascist right, with some room for homophobes as well. And it is with this “Light unto the Nations” Religious Zionist party that the Likud chose to sign a “Remainder Agreement” so that no votes are lost to the Bibi block.

Fourth: divide and break up the United List. Having a block of 15 members who are firmly outside his reach, seriously reduced his chances of getting together his 61, or more, dream coalition. So, Bibi persuaded his new pal, Mansour Abbas, leader of the Ra’am faction in the United List, that great things are in store for him if he and his Ra’am faction leave the United List and go it alone. Abbas took the bait. If his new friend Mansour Abbas and his conservative – religious – homophobic Ra’am party do pass the Election Threshold, what could be more natural than including them in a coalition with Bezalel Smotrich and his conservative -religious – homophobic Religious Zionist party? Gone are the days when it wasn’t kosher to include non-Zionist parties in the coalition (so move over Aguda – and make room for some more non-Zionists in the government). Even better, if Abbas fails to get over the Election Threshold – effectively the Bibi block will pick-up one or two seats from these “wasted votes” and so the Bibi block is strengthened without actually having to give Mansour any consideration at all. A real “win-win” situation.

Fifth: Time the elections. The election date is not set in the winter of Corona between various lock-downs and a spiraling death count – but in spring, the season of rebirth and hope, when a grateful vaccinated nation is allowed to plan its Pesach and Easter holidays as businesses reopen and all returns to life, more or less as we knew it in the pre-Corona era. In seven sunny days-time, who will remember the dreadful winter of mismanagement?

Sixth: Look for new potential voters: “Abu Yair” has discovered the Arab minority and is now courting them to “come in hoards to the polls” – this time to vote Likud!

Matched against this master politician that the anti-Bibi camp hopes to replace – we have chaos and a total dearth of leadership in the center-left camp. Lapid failed to unite the camp. Gantz runs on alone. Labor runs alone. Meretz runs alone. All three of the latter in danger of not passing the minimum Election Threshold to get into the Knesset.

Any signs of new leadership seem to come from the right: Gideon Sa’ar and his ultra-right New Hope party; Bennett and his Yemina-Right party; Liberman – the neo-liberal foaming against religious coercion. Clear to all that Lapid has no possible way to get to 61 without the support of all three of these right-wing parties – each of which rejects him as a potential Prime Minister. So, should left wing voters vote “strategically” to strengthen one of these three right-wing crown contenders? Maybe the least evil one?

Looking at the opinion polls, they show that Bibi is not far from his dream “all Right” coalition: Likud, the Ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and Aguda), the new “Religious Zionists” (including the Kahanists) and (for lack of other choice) Bennet and his Yemina party. A coalition that will ensure Netanyahu gets immunity from criminal prosecution, but will also gut the judiciary, what is left of the civil service and all other gate-keepers of a modern, sane, democratic and moderate Israel. A coalition that will promote settlements, annexation of the West Bank and which will further support the Haredi Parties in their various demands ranging from disproportional financial support, draft evasion and extending the rights of their stream of Judaism over all non-orthodox streams. A truly nightmare coalition scenario for any center-left voter.

We are on the defensive. The only thing to be done is to try and ensure that the above nightmare coalition falls short of a majority in the Knesset – they must not get to 61 seats.

What is the best way to ensure that the Bibi “all Right” coalition does not get to 61 seats?

One no-brainer: don’t vote for Bennett. Persuade friends and family not to vote for Bennett. Bennett is a key-man in Netanyahu’s potential nightmare coalition. Unlike Sa’ar and Liberman – Bennett does not rule out sitting with Netanyahu. Given the fractured and diverse possible anti-Bibi coalition, Bennett is more likely to join Bibi in his “all Right” coalition than he is to sign up for a coalition with Sa’ar, Liberman, Lapid, Michaeli and Horowitz. Bennett is young and patient. He could join Netanyahu now to replace him in the future. So even if you think Bennett is the best option to replace Bibi – paradoxically, a “strategic” vote for him this time round is probably voting to retain Bibi, not replace him.

Beyond the “not Bennett” – it becomes more complex. One needs to understand how the 120 Knesset seats are allocated, in order to calculate how best to stop Bibi getting his 61.

So, exactly how does the numbers game work?

With 120 seats in the Knesset – a governing coalition needs at least a majority of the seats, i.e., 61 seats.

How are the seats divided among the Parties? Well in a proportional system, each party gets a number of seats proportional to its percentage of the total vote.

But wait. There is a catch. If a party fails to get at least 3.5% of the total number of valid votes – it is out the game. It has failed to pass the “Election Threshold”. The 120 Knesset seats are not divided among the total number of valid votes. They are divided among the total number of valid votes cast for parties that got at least 3.5% of the total number of valid votes. This number of total votes cast for parties that got at least 3.5% of the valid votes is divided by 120 and this gives the Numerator required per seat.

Dividing the number of votes for each Party (technically a list) that passed the “Election Threshold” by the Numerator – gives you the initial number of seats awarded to that Party. After the initial allocation in this manner– a small number of seats will remain unallocated – as Parties are unlikely to get votes in exact multiples of the Numerator. These additional seats are then allocated among the parties in the following manner: The total number of votes received by a party is then divided by the initial number of seats awarded to that Party (according to the above calculation) plus one seat. The party with the highest remainder after this calculation -gets the additional seat. This process is repeated until all 120 seats are allocated. Mathematically, this system favors the larger parties in the allocation of the remaining seats. Two parties are permitted to sign a “Remainder Agreement” and then are treated as one list for the purposes of allocating the seats among the lists.

The Election Threshold of 3.5% translates to receiving about 4 seats in the Knesset. So a small party close to the 3.5% threshold gets 4 seats if it passes the Election Threshold and 0 seats if it does not. Its all 4, or nothing.

The upshot of all this is that if a party fails to pass the Election Threshold – effectively its votes are divided among the parties that do pass. Given the almost equal size of the Bibi and the anti-Bibi blocks, if a party in the anti-Bibi block narrowly fails to pass the Election Threshold – then its “almost 4 seats” will likely be allocated: 2 to parties in the Bibi-block and 2 to parties in the anti-Bibi block. A net gain of 2 seats to the Bibi block.

Hence, a center-left voter’s best chance to stop Bibi obtaining his “all Right” coalition is by making sure that the small parties in the anti-Bibi block all pass the Election Threshold.

A vote for Lapid is a wasted vote. He will not be our next Prime Minister, if he gets 19 seats or 25 seats – he has no coalition path to 61 seats (and certainly none without the 3 small parties in his block – as if one of these stumbles, then Bibi is in).

So, vote for one of the weakest parties in the anti-Bibi block: Labour, Gantz or Meretz. If any one of these three parties fails to get past the Election Threshold – the Bibi-block gains 2 seats and judging by the current polls, this is sufficient to give Bibi his 61 “all Right” coalition.

To confess, I have always been a Meretz supporter. As an ex-South African who left a religious-totalitarian apartheid society based on the supremacy of the White Afrikaner, and made Aliyah to Israel, I bought into the Meretz inclusive, enlightened, democratic view of Israel as a Jewish State with equal rights for all, no matter your race, religion, or gender; a State that ultimately would live in peace alongside an independent Palestinian State thus ensuring a continued democratic Jewish majority in Israel for future generations.

I am angered at the failure of Labor and Meretz to unite. The remaining differences (if any) between the parties do not seem to warrant the risk of running two separate lists one, or both, of which may fail to achieve the Election Threshold. It is a failure of leadership in both of the parties: partly due to Horowitz’s fear of a repeat of Meretz’s bad experiences in rounds 2 and 3 in participating in such “joint lists”; but primarily due to Merav “Machieveli”s wish for Labor to run independently under her sole leadership, with the advantage of being able to claim that Labor is a “center-left” party with Meretz further to her “left”. Her calculus: together Labor-Meretz would probably only get about 8-9 seats (on a good day) while separately they could get 10 seats (Labor 6, Meretz 4).

But the 10 may be only 6 if Meretz fails to achieve the Election Threshold. I will be saddened if Meretz decides to drop out of the race before election day – but call upon the party leaders to take a good, hard, in-depth, look at the last election polls published prior to the election day. Better to pull out with dignity than to risk not achieving the Election Threshold.

However, if Meretz does continue in the race, then all past Meretz supporters and all undecided voters in the center -left spectrum should Vote Meretz. Getting Meretz passed the Election Threshold becomes of vital importance to the block. It is the most strategic vote one can make to stop Bibi’s “all Right” coalition. For most, it is also a vote of conscience, a vote for a party that has always held true to its values and done its best to deliver.

While I share concerns that I have heard in recent days: “I don’t want to waste my vote on a party that fails to get over the Election Threshold” –this is all part of the numbers game.

If all Meretz voters who hold such fears -fail to vote Meretz, then this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the big picture – if Meretz fails to get over the Election Threshold, then Bibi has his coalition as he picks up an additional seat or, two. It won’t help that you voted for some other party in the not-Bibi block. If Meretz stumbles Bibi has his coalition anyway. So if Meretz does continue in the race, we need to hold collective faith that doubtful Meretz voters can still do their maths and that on election day, all make a strategic decision to vote their convictions and vote Meretz.

So in the numbers game, if you are not part of the Bibi block, do your maths and calculate the best defensive way we have to stop Bibi getting to his “all Right” coalition.

Its time to vote the weakest link.

About the Author
Jonathan Schwartz works as an independent commercial lawyer, with a focus on high-tech and medical devices. Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, he made Aliyah at the age of 19, and moved to Zur Yigal after spending time in Jerusalem, Kibbutz Tzora and Raanana. He is married with 4 children.
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