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.