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Even if Netanyahu loses, he can still win

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Just days away from elections in Israel on March 17th, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party may not be able to recover from the dive it took in the polls this week. Likud is down—more than it’s been since campaigning began in December. Netanyahu is expected to get 21 seats while the Zionist Camp headed by Labour’s Isaac Herzog and Hatuna’s Tzipi Livni, would get 24. Some polls show Likud with even fewer seats.

However, Israeli elections are determined by voting blocs and not individual parties. And so even if Netanyahu loses, he can still win. And if that happens, it wouldn’t be the first time.

In Israel’s 2009 election Netanayhu’s party lost to Tzipi Livni’s Kadima. It was a tight race. Kadima won 28 seats and Likud won 27. However, Netanyahu became prime minister because his right-wing bloc overall won more seats than Livni’s. In the Israeli system, the party that wins the most votes is not guaranteed to run the government. It needs smaller parties to lend their support to form a coalition–the magic number is 61 seats.

In ’09 it wasn’t a clean race to form a coalition. Netanyahu blocked Livni with a great deal of political savvy. At that time he was under the tutelage of Avigdor Liberman (the two have since split) who is known for strongman tactics to get his picks in office, and keep his foes out. Together they went door-to-door to smaller parties and offered political trades, like promising orthodox groups Netanyahu would not conscript their community into Israel’s national draft in exchange for their votes. This convinced them not to support a government run by Livni.

After ten days Israel’s president stepped in and said Livni’s time to form a coalition had passed. It was then up to Netanyahu to muster enough support to form a government. There were some difficulties, but Israel’s president extended the amount of time Netanyahu had to get other parties to back him.

Finally over a month after elections were held and with five times as much time as Livni to form a coalition, Netanyahu announced he was able to form a government with him as prime minister. This entire scenario could be repeated in this election cycle, excluding the extension to form a government. President Reuven Rivlin is rumored to favor the Zionist Camp and it’s not probable that he will pull out the legal loopholes to do Netanyahu any favors.

Right now Netanyahu has more friends in smaller parties than Herzog/Livni. Four are in his pocket: Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yahad and Yisrael Beiteinu. There are also a couple of mid-sized center groups that haven’t yet announced who they will back. Kulanu and their estimated 11 seats are still up for grabs, as is Yesh Atid, although it’s highly unlikely that Netanyahu can get Yesh Atid’s blessing and 12 seats. But if just one of these swing parties support Netanayhu, overall his bloc could secure over 61 seats, while the Zionist Camp—even with Arab List backing—would only get 55 seats.

Until now, the Arab List hasn’t revealed if they will support the Zionist Camp. Traditionally when parties back a prime minister, they are invited to “join the government,” meaning leaders are given jobs as ministers. Historically, Arab politicians have never been offered such positions, although famously in 1993 they did give their votes to Yitzhak Rabin so that he could form a governing coalition. But if the Zionist Camp strikes an agreement with the two undecided center parties, it would not need the Arab List to form a government.

There are lots of other complications too that could shift the results last minute. Israel allows something called surplus votes. It’s a like a lending system from bigger parties to smaller ones. If a large faction like the Zionist Camp has extra votes that are not enough to secure an additional seat, it can give those votes over to Meretz, the Zionist-left group, allowing Meretz to add the votes to its numbers and obtain another seat. Meretz would then in turn back the Zionist Camp and lend that seat to the coalition. This is not a hypothetical situation. This deal between Meretz and Zionist Camp has already been struck, perhaps signalling the nervousness the opposition feels despite being frontrunners. And other parties have cut such deals, but in favor of Netanyahu’s Likud.

By the polls, what is clear now is that more Israelis want Netanyahu out of office than those who want him to become prime minister for a fourth term. But who Israelis want to run their country may not be who they get.

Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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42 Responses

  1. jon s on March 12, 2015, 5:50 pm

    The “surplus votes” rule does not necessarily mean that a larger party gives votes to a smaller one. Two parties sign an agreement and the party that’s closest to the next mandate will get the votes of the other one, regardless of which is larger.

    Allison is mistaken in saying that other deals could be signed in the next few days. The deadline for signing such deals has passed.

    • weiss on March 12, 2015, 7:33 pm

      After all these “back-door” deals I feel like I need to take a shower.

      Is that the democracy Israelis are so proud of?

      • DaBakr on March 12, 2015, 11:47 pm


        grow up. if you don;t know by now that 95% of history has been “back-door” deals and dirty politics cleaned up for ignorant masses , children and other ‘innocents’ your doomed to a life of outrage.

      • jon s on March 13, 2015, 3:30 am

        They are not “back door deals”. They are announced publicly, before the elections, so the voters can take those agreements into consideration.

      • Mooser on March 13, 2015, 6:31 pm

        “grow up. if you don;t know by now that 95% of history has been “back-door” deals and dirty politics cleaned up for ignorant masses”

        One Zionist

        “They are not “back door deals”. They are announced publicly, before the elections, so the voters can take…”

        Another Zionist heard from.

        C’mon guys, where’s the tribal unity? Can’t you coordinate on a story?

    • Krauss on March 13, 2015, 10:52 am

      The “surplus votes” rule does not necessarily mean that a larger party gives votes to a smaller one. Two parties sign an agreement and the party that’s closest to the next mandate will get the votes of the other one, regardless of which is larger.

      You are correct.

      And it still doesn’t matter squat shit(if you’ll excuse the french).

      For Livni/Herzog to rule, they need to bring the ultra-Orthodox together with anti-Haredi Lapid(whom they hate more than anyone else) as well as with the Arabs.

      Never going to happen. The Arabs are props in the Apartheid state, only J-positive blood matters. So it is among those parties where a majority must be found. And Bibi will simply outnumer and outgun the Labor/left any time of the day. Doesn’t matter if they get 5 seats more.

  2. David Doppler on March 12, 2015, 6:03 pm

    Again, this is very helpful, Allison. Your election coverage beats any I’m able to find searching high and low for it, although the Guardian is helpful, too

    I hope you’ll continue reporting as the election results come in and the bare-knuckle politics of coalition building gets underway. The Herzog/Livni split seems pre-historic – how can leadership be divided, like that? I remember Greek city-states uniting their armies for common defense that way, with the commanding general changing day by day through a rotation. Not a good way to run any organization.

    The UAL role reported in the Guardian seems to offer a path for Israel to gain support in the International community, a government of all its citizens has a firmer foundation than these right-wing extremists.

    I think the US press should consider diving into in-depth coverage of the election and coalition process, because, so far, it has seemed to be nothin’ but Netanyahu inevitability, mere propaganda. As it is, they’re all at risk of seeming “surprised” by Likud’s downfall, having never bothered to look critically at the bankruptcy of its ideology, the failure of its tenure, the emptiness of its propaganda.

    • ritzl on March 12, 2015, 8:39 pm

      @David Doppler

      From your Guardian link:

      Perhaps equally important as deposing Netanyahu – [Ayman] Odeh said – is that if his party achieves the electoral success the polls suggest, it would become the third largest in the Israeli parliament making him a candidate to lead the opposition if the final result – as some suspect – is a national unity government.

      “If there is a national unity cabinet [involving both Herzog and Netanyahu] we will lead the opposition.” And that would provide Odeh and his partners with a key platform to campaign for greater rights for Israeli Arabs – who make up about 20% of a population of 8.2 million and are descendants of Palestinians who did not flee during the war over Israel’s 1948 creation.

      That’s an interesting wrinkle. I wonder what it means in practical political terms.

      A few months back a lot of people were asking, “If the two-state solution is dead, what is the follow-on [what replaces it]?” I think this is a glimpse of the beginnings of that follow-on.

      Another great article. Thanks.

  3. Dutch on March 12, 2015, 6:26 pm

    In the Netherlands such strategic alliences have to be announced on the voting lists that all voters receive 3-4 weeks in advance of the elections. It seems strange if voters are not aware of this.

    In the end the ‘surplus votes’ don’t make the difference. In practise just a few seats (out of 150) get swapped.

    BTW – In our democracy the winner of the elections gets the first go to form a government and claim the PM-ship.

  4. just on March 12, 2015, 6:39 pm

    That picture of Tzipi and Bibi gives me the willies and makes me laugh, too.

    yech. Thanks for the article, Allison.

  5. a blah chick on March 12, 2015, 7:06 pm

    Wasn’t Livni considered part of the far right back in the eighties? That’s how I remember her politics. Now she’s considered a moderate.

    • Krauss on March 13, 2015, 10:48 am

      You’re right. Livni hasn’t really moderated, but the center of gravity has shifted far to the right. She declared Ariel Sharon as her spiritual and political mentor, even a “father figure”. So the notion of her as somekind of leftist is hilarious.

  6. piotr on March 12, 2015, 7:09 pm

    Actually, many news headlines are about “panic” in Likud and decline in the latest polls. I think there will be no more polls.

    One interpretation of the latest polls is that Likud will form a government with three religious parties, two not-that-religious parties, YB and BY, plus Kulanu, Likud offshoot for Likud voters that would like economic policies addressing the problems like increase in apartment rents.

    But if Kulanu or Shas flip toward Zionist Union, or Yachad and BY collapse (Yachad in particular is close to the threshold), or Yachad collapses and some MK defect from Kulanu, PLUS Arab List gives the support to Zionist Union, then Likud is out.

    My projection is that the negotiations to form the government will be quite protracted, and “bitter choices” will be necessary. For example, the last government enacted some laws deeply displeasing the religious parties that may be necessary for Likud. But YB and BY can be sharply opposed to concessions that will be demanded. There can be some bidding war of the two camps, reminiscent of a situation years ago in Turkey when the government expanded the number of ministerial portfolios to seventy, one freshly minted portfolio for every defector from the opposition. We will also see if Kulanu was a vehicle to keep economically motivated voters within Likud fold, or to extract portfolios for former Likud underdogs, or an outright Leftist Trojan horse (after all, their economic views are rather Left, to the degree I understand them at all).

  7. ritzl on March 12, 2015, 7:26 pm

    Thanks, Allison. Great info.

  8. wondering jew on March 12, 2015, 8:27 pm

    “By the polls what is clear now is that more Israelis want Netanyahu out of office than those who want him to become prime minister for a fourth term. But who Israelis want to run their country may not be who they get.”

    What a misleading sentence! The polls say that given the choice between Herzog and Netanyahu, the voters choose Bibi over Herzog by 49 to 36%, so technically since less than half would choose Bibi to continue, Allison Deger’s statement is not a lie. But please, really, this is reporting?! This is journalism?! Bibi is preferred 49 to 36%.

    This is not news reporting. It is twisted.

    • W.Jones on March 13, 2015, 5:24 am


      As you know, in practice what happens is electing parties, No? So the most popular candidate is not always the winner, but the one whose party makes a coalition. You of course I assume are well aware of that.

      So the real question is will the parties get together and choose him in a coalition, which I assume they well because of the right wing drift.

      Did I miss anything?

    • seafoid on March 13, 2015, 5:54 am

      “Bibi is preferred”

      That’s the result of years of indoctrination.
      Where hate is love and delusion is strategy.

      you can say it’s the people’s choice till the cows come home Yonah but it’s darkness vs darkness in this Israeli election. This is not what the return to Zion was supposed to become.

      The great kabbalist, Yehuda Ashlag, taught that the means for correcting the problems in the world are mercy, truth, righteousness and peace. None of these qualities are evident in today’s Israel .

      Israel is more Sodom and Gomorrah than anything else.

      “Through the biblical prophets, the people of Israel are regularly scolded for their forgetfulness, and lambasted for their failure to keep faith with the covenant they made with God. The prophets represented the self-critical vigilance of the Jewish people. They spoke the uncomfortable truth to power. Oh, how we need to listen to their voices once again.”
      “One has to bear in mind that Israelis live in a largely mythic world, a somewhat modified and vastly simplified version of the Iliad. In this starkly polarized vision of reality, in which Israelis are by definition innocent victims of dark, irrational forces operating against them, heroic death in war always makes sense, and violent coercion is the option both of necessity and of choice. ”
      “In his speech, Rosen-Zvi said, “I want to single out two things that seem new and very frightening to me. First, the death of soldiers no longer creates the same public pressure as in the past. It’s a new mechanism and different from what we knew, when coffins created a sense of revulsion that led to criticism and media pressure. It seems that now death creates togetherness and at the same time invites more death in order to justify it. ”

      “A great majority of the time, for most of the Jews here, the Palestinian suffering is completely denied. When it is not documented on video it interests almost no one, and when it is documented it is repressed as a conspiracy. What significance is there to the display of mutual responsibility of these days if when they see the Palestinian baby who survived a premature birth and a car accident, but did not survive a live bullet fired at his upper body, in light of the documentation of his death we do not become angry and give our hearts out to him and his family; and instead we ask with estranged cynicism and in arrogant contempt: “Why don’t they show us what happened earlier?” ”

      “Yeshayahu Leibowitz understood this already 60 years ago, when he wrote in his seminal essay “After Kibiyeh” (collected in “Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State,” edited by Eliezer Goldman, Harvard University Press 1995) of “the fear of losing religous-moral supremacy, which is easy to hold on to when there is no risk to it and difficult under other circumstances.”
      Less than six years after the creation of a sovereign state with a powerful army, Leibowitz wrote that the “real religious and moral meaning of our political rebirth and the return to our hands of the use of force” would be a severe test for Jews who were too accustomed to being victims. “Can we prove capable not only of suffering for these values we exalted, but also acting upon them?” he asked. “It’s easy to suffer, physically and materially for values, even to sacrifice our lives: that necessitates only physical courage which exists in surprising quantities among all human gatherings. It’s difficult to suffer for values, when this suffering means also giving up things which are also seen as values.”
      In the decades after 1967, Leibowitz would be excoriated by the right wing for his fierce criticism of the occupation which he, perhaps inexcusably, described as “Judeo-Nazi.” But he was speaking as a fervent Zionist who was one of the first to see how the success of Zionism meant we had to realize we were no longer victims and that victory came with a moral price. It was “the great test we are faced with by national liberation, political independence and sovereign power — as a nation, a society and a culture which for generations had the privilege of mental and spiritual enjoyment in exile, foreign-rule and self-impotence.”

      “Trampling on the rights of the Palestinians in the name of our exclusive right to the country, and by dint of a divine decree, is an ineradicable stain on Jewish history. Anyone who becomes entrenched in these views will end up bringing about the international ostracism of all of Israel, and if that happens, it won’t be anti-Semitism.” — Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell – See more at:

      • wondering jew on March 13, 2015, 12:37 pm

        seafoid- at least on this thread you have offered the words of others that are of interest and have some meat on them.

        I think anshel pfeffer caught the essence of israel’s lack of normalcy in his friday column in haaretz: Israel has no constitution. Israel has not defined its borders. Israel has ruled the Palestinians of the West bank for close to 50 years without figuring out how to do this while claiming to be a democracy. bibi is the most obvious symptom of abnormalcy but the lack of normalcy is much deeper than bibi.

        w. jones- i think/hope that the “center” parties of deri and lapid, who are naturally of the right wing variety, will pressure likud to fire bibi, so that they can form a right wing government but be true to their word (and their hearts) that they don’t wish to join bibi.

      • seafoid on March 13, 2015, 1:07 pm

        Israel thought the Palestinian question would be settled by now. Maybe that they would run away? Anyway it isn’t and they didn’t.
        And nobody in Israeli jewish politics has any idea what to do next.
        And Yossi thinks the status quo is fabulous.

      • Mooser on March 13, 2015, 6:37 pm

        “i think/hope that the “center” parties of deri and lapid, who are naturally of the right wing variety, will pressure likud to fire bibi, so that they can form a right wing government…”

        You “hope” that even without Buibi, a “right wing government” will form? Yonah, you think moving to the right is the way Israel should go? Okay.

      • wondering jew on March 14, 2015, 4:09 pm

        mooser- I am fine with a unity government and i am actually fine with a left wing government that does not represent the will of the people that acts against the will of the people and negotiates an end to the occupation. but given that the population 49 to 36% prefers bibi over herzog, the unity government or the right wing government would represent the will of the electorate.

        i wish all israelis agreed with me and gave meretz 120 seats or 107 seats and 13 seats for the United List. but they don’t. my hopes reflect the political reality.

      • Mooser on March 16, 2015, 12:42 pm

        “negotiates an end to the occupation. “

        One does not “negotiate” an end to an occupation. It is illegal to acquire territory by war. The occupying country withdraws, and then, only then, can there be any “negotiations”.

        And all of the parties have declared there will be no end to the occupation.

      • Mooser on March 17, 2015, 4:36 pm

        ” I am fine with a unity government and i am actually fine with a left wing government that does not represent the will of the people that acts against the will of the people”

        Got a pretty low opinion of the will of Israel’s people, don’t you, Yonah? So if any progress is made towards ameliorating even the slightest bit of Israeli intransigence, it will be done in spite of the “will of the people” by a “left wing government” “that acts against the will of the people”.
        Interesting viewpoint.

  9. Kay24 on March 12, 2015, 10:25 pm

    Apparently even the Economist has stated Netanyahu is ” devious, reckless, and brazen”.

    Interesting developments regarding the criticism of Netanyahu as of today:

  10. crone on March 12, 2015, 11:38 pm

    I read somewhere in the last day or two that if Likud party gets 20 seats or less, they cannot form a coalition.

    Do you know anything about this Allison? Thanks for the news.

  11. seafoid on March 13, 2015, 6:36 am

    That picture of Zippy and the Chief thug wizard says so much. the only people who can make it to the top in Israel are sociopaths. The voters are have been “seasoned’ via the education system for so long that they are like Pavlov’s dogs. Say “security” and they salivate.
    So sociopaths continue to get reelected. The only difference between Zippy and the other guy is that sometimes she wears skirts.

  12. piotr on March 13, 2015, 12:46 pm

    Netanyahu is warning that neither BY nor Kulanu rejected participation in a government of ZU. I really do not see how Lieberman could join ZU, but Kulanu was studiously ambigous.

    Religious block is against sitting with Yesh Atid, because Lapid called for criminal sanctions for Haredi draft dodgers. I guess that getting them to support a government would require to recognize Torah studies as a kind of national service or something like that, and that is against the convictions of National Orthodox like those who run YB. This is one of the issues which is totally puzzling to an outsiders — it is not like drafting Haredi Torah students would allow Israel to conquer Iran, isn’t it? It is more like military service has some religious or quasi-religious significance to most of Jewish Israelis, and to many of them avoiding the service is like a heresy — one true faith has to be defended whatever the cost.

    Between all those issues (draft, high rents, Iranian danger) and parties, Israelis are quite confused. That may explain why Netanyahu gets high percentage as PM candidate and Likud polls quite low. Hard to tell where he gets 49% from? Is he so popular among the Haredi? I though that they would not care.

    • seafoid on March 13, 2015, 1:05 pm

      The Haredi will vote for whoever gives them the biggest subsidies . they are not fussy

      • Mooser on March 17, 2015, 4:43 pm

        “The Haredi will vote for whoever gives them the biggest subsidies . they are not fussy”

        Well, the Haredim are the most authentic surviving group of Jews, tracing their ancestry all the way back to Torah days. They must be maintained and protected. They, of course, set the standards and mores for the rest of us. We couldn’t do without them. How would we know what was really Jewish without them?

  13. wondering jew on March 13, 2015, 1:04 pm

    piotr says: “It is more like military service has some religious or quasi-religious significance to most of Jewish Israelis, and to many of them avoiding the service is like a heresy — one true faith has to be defended whatever the cost.”

    The role of military service as some kind of religious significance is an interesting topic, but irrelevant to the reason why secular Israelis want religious Jews to serve. military service is a large burden and those that serve feel that all should bear the burden. as simple and as basic and as fair as just that.

    bibi’s 49% come from the people who feel that the danger of the Arabs is sufficient to justify Likud policies. Haredi’s fear for their lives just like all others. Their suspicion of the Arabs is one of the highest of any demographic in Israel.

    • piotr on March 13, 2015, 5:25 pm

      I have a broader view of quasi-religion. For example, some segment of American population is deeply religious, and they are devotedly sticking to principles like avoiding socialized medicine and the right to bear concealed firearms. And “Randians”, ostensibly secular, also share those beliefs. Some Randians are Zionist extremists, which explains why they plied slogan “stand with a civilized man” (initially I was stumped where they got it from).

      Concerning anti-Haredi Israeli Jews, cutting various subsidies, changing the education toward more job oriented (and not just shehita inspectors), etc. seems perfectly rational to me. Trying to mold Bratslaver Hasidim etc. into disciplined IDF troops, not so much. Personally, I would apply conscription to Haredi girls (they are not obliged to study Torah, are they).

      In any case, Haredi parties are currently counted in “National Camp”, but that will be subjected to very strenuous bargaining, and some members of the “secular National Camp”, particularly the religious ones, may object a lot to concessions that will be demanded.

      • wondering jew on March 14, 2015, 4:03 pm

        Personally, I would apply conscription to Haredi girls (they are not obliged to study Torah, are they).

        Is this an attempt at humor?

        the haredi phenomenon and its demographic growth particularly in the city of jerusalem is of particular interest to me. I never heard of Randians before.

        Haredi parties are a different entity than the community. Give me a piece of the pie politics and the dependency of the community on subsidies are of course part of the culture rather than just part of the politics.

      • seafoid on March 15, 2015, 7:57 am

        Haredi girls are baby machines, Yonah

        They don’t live in the same reality as secular people like you

      • wondering jew on March 15, 2015, 2:33 pm

        seafoid- how many haredi girls do you know? when was the last time you spoke a word to a haredi person?

      • annie on March 15, 2015, 4:59 pm

        yonah, why should seafoid answer a personal question from you? See more at:

      • piotr on March 15, 2015, 4:39 pm

        Exactly, seafoid, don’t those girls deserve three years without pregnancy? A deal would be that any Jewish couple must have at least one person that serves or served in IDF — better yet, ANY couple, including cohabitations. Pregnancy while in service would be prevented. There would be special nursery units, so couples with small children could provide servicepersons too.

        Sounds a bit outrageous, but the slogan in Israel is “sharing sacrifice”, and this proposal is very much in that spirit.

      • seafoid on March 15, 2015, 5:28 pm


        Here’s a nice link for you

        Send some money to them and sponsor a Haredi wedding

        Or alternatively

        “After the Wedding, What Do Impoverished Brides Come Home To?
        Imagine the girl who spends the weeks of her engagement crying, worrying, and longing for the necessities she cannot buy.
        Many brides in Israel face their wedding day with the knowledge that when they come home from the party, they will face an apartment bare of even the most basic amenities for normal living: sheets, towels, soap, pots, broom and dustpan. Certainly there is no money left over for more personal items. How is the new couple supposed to start off on the right foot if there is no way to clean the house or make supper?”

        Haredi men don’t do the cleaning either
        Obviously the settlers need the money more than the brides.

      • Mooser on March 17, 2015, 4:13 pm

        “how many haredi girls do you know? “

        Oy if you knew haredi,
        Like “Seafoid” knows haredi,
        Oh, oh, oh, what a girl!’

        I see no reason why haredi girls can’t perform any function performed by any other Israeli girl in the military. Are they too good for military service? Too aidel gepotchket ?

      • Mooser on March 17, 2015, 4:18 pm

        “Exactly, seafoid, don’t those girls deserve three years without pregnancy?”

        Gee, what was that old song? Oh yes:

        ‘If you’re nervous in the service,
        And you don’t know what to do,
        have a baby, have a baby!’

        I realise I will never have any but the sketchiest ideas about how these things work, but I think statistics indicate that military service is not a reliable contraceptive.

  14. Taxi on March 13, 2015, 5:53 pm

    If Netanyahu looses, I win.

    If Netanyahu wins, I win.

    Win-win for me and my buddies, as far as I’m concerned.

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