Israel election analysis: prepare for a unity government [UPDATED]

Guest post by Eyal

Update: 8 am

Well, this is embarrassing. What a difference 6 hours can make. It seems that yesterday’s near-tie has turned during the night into an outright victory for Likud. As Gene pointed out, with 99% of polls reporting, Likud has won 30 seats, Zionist Union 24. The night started with both tied at 27. Meretz also lost a seat (4 total), the Arab List gained one (14), as did “Yisrael Beitenu” (6).

Whereas yesterday this was a tie that breaks for the right, now it is an outright Netanyahu/Likud victory. And an impressive one, one must confess.

This means that a left-wing government is even more of a possibility in theory only than it was last night. It’s not just the numbers (63 seats only), but also the moral authority to form a coalition. The “Kulanu” centrist party, if it was unlikely to back a left-wing government when they were tied, can almost certainly not do so when Likud has a 6 seat majority.

It makes the case for a right-wing government more likely, as it will have 67 seats (beyond the 63 initially projected in the analysis below).

And even though I believe the rationale for a national unity government still holds, now it is one in which Hertzog/Zionist-Union will not be an equal partner (as was possible with a tie), but one in which Zionist Union will be a minority partner in a Likud government, with Netanyahu as the sole Prime Minister, and on Netanyahu’s terms.

In the short term it reinforces the projection from last night: Netanyahu will quickly consolidate a coalition around his natural right-wing base, and then try to bring in a centrist party.

The updated results have an impact on both whether Netanyahu will be inclined to form such a government. I believe he still will, but with an outright victory it is now a nice-to-have, not a must-have. Labour/Zionist-Union will also have to decide whether to enter a coalition in which they are a junior partner, or prefer to go to opposition. I believe the 2nd option is far more likely.


The polls in Israel just closed, and even though exact final results won’t be known for a few more days, exit polls are near-unanimous in what the picture will more-or-less look like:

According to most exist polls, Netanyahu’s Likud party is set to get about 27 seats and Itzhak Hertzog’s Zionist-Union is also set to receive 26 seats (in 2 out of the 3 polls; the 3rd has them each at one seat more), the United Arab List 12-13 seats, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party 11 seats, Moshe Kahlon’s “Kulanu” party 10 seats, the Jewish Home 8 seats, Shas 7 seats, United Torah party 6 seats, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party 5 seats and Meretz 5 seats. [Update from Gene: with almost all the votes counted, Likud has apparently won 30 seats to the Zionist Union’s 24.]

An open question is whether the radical right/religious party “Yachad” gets in or not. Two exist polls have them below the minimal threshold, and one poll has them above the 4 seat threshold. If they get in, it’s a big boost to the right. If not, it make a potential right-wing coalition narrower.

Much will be said and written on this topic in the next few weeks, but here are a few early observations:

Final results will take a few more days:
even though exit polls are in near-agreement for almost all parties, it will still take a few more days until all results are in. One reason is votes by soldiers, whose ballots are counted later. A second reason is ‘carry-over’ agreements between parties, which allow the transfer of ‘leftover’ votes between parties of the same bloc. These may result in minor changes, but in a close election such as this, even a handful of seats make a big difference.

It’s Bibi back by a nose: as one political commentator wrote in his Facebook page: “from Day 1 of this election campaign we said that this is a referendum on Bibi. And tonight it seems that Bibi won the referendum.”

It seems Likud and Zionist Union will get about the same number of seats, but a tie breaks for the right. The structure of the main political blocs gives an advantage to the right/religious bloc of parties, and although the leaders of some of the smaller right-wing parties would be more than happy to see Netanyahu go, a tie – and even a small loss – deprives them of legitimacy among their voters to outright support a Labour government.

Based on the results above (which, again, may change slightly in the next few days), I’ll try to go over the main options for a coalition government:

A left-wing government: This is an option in name only. Such a coalition would likely be based on Zionist Union (26-27 seats), Yesh Atid (11), Meretz (5), “Kulanu” (10), and the United Arab List (12-13) for a total of about 65 seats. However, there are several problems with this theory.

Firstly, is the issue of the United Arab List. The Arab List is comprised of a union of three Arab parties with radically different politics: the Communist, Jewish-Arab HADASH party, the Islamist RAAM/TAAL party, and the secular Arab nationalistic party BALAD. Each party takes a different view on cooperation with Jewish and Zionist parties. Although HADASH is a joint Arab/Jewish party and could plausibly support a left-wing government, the other parties are highly unlikely to do so.

For example, before the elections, Meretz attempted to sign a ‘carry-over’ agreement with the Arab List, thereby freeing Zionist-Union to sign a similar agreement with the centrist Yesh-Atid party. This attempt was blocked by some of the more radical members of the Arab List – particularly BALAD – who refused to sign an agreement with a Zionist party – any Zionist party – even a left-wing liberal one. Since ‘carry-over’ agreements favor larger parties, such an agreement almost certainly would have benefitted the Arab List, possibly giving them another seat. However, ultimately some members of the party preferred to lose a seat rather than cooperate with a Zionist party. Meretz ended up signing an agreement with Zionist-Union, and both Yesh Atid and the Arab List ended up not signing such agreements at all.

This goes to show that a party that will not cooperate with the most liberal Zionist party (Meretz) over an issue that will benefit itself, will almost certainly not cooperate with a mainstream Zionist coalition. Hertzog himself is unlikely to base his government on the support of the Arab List, and the centrist Yesh-Atid and Kulanu parties are unlikely to sit in a government based on support from anti-Zionist Arab parties. Therefore, at most, any support they will give will be tacit support from outside of the government, and cannot really be included in any coalition arithmetic.

Secondly, as a result of the tie between Zionist-Union and Likud, the “Kulanu” party is unlikely to join a straight left-wing government. “Kulanu” was formed by Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister who split with Netanyahu. His campaign was based on economic/housing issues that Likud neglected, and his campaign slogan was “True Likud votes Kahlon”. Kahlon is no fan of Netanyahu, and is reportedly on very good terms with Hertzog. However, ultimately he is right-wing and his voter base is mostly moderate right-wing. Had Hertzog won by a margin of a few seats, he could have claimed that he has no choice, but with a tie between Likud and Zionist-Union he will have little legitimacy to back an outright left-wing government over a Likud one.

Finally, Hertzog can also turn to the religious parties, who are happy to sit in any government. However, Shas has already declared it would back Netanyahu, and both Shas and United Torah have declared a public veto on “Yesh Atid”, which enacted several laws regarding army service and school funding that the religious parties are vehemently opposed to. As a result, they are unlikely to be able to sit in a government together.

Therefore, although theoretically the Left/Center/Arab bloc has enough votes to form a coalition (and maybe even toss some religious parties to the mix), in practice the pieces are unlikely to come together.

A right-wing government:
This is the most intuitive option, but has a number of serious challenges of its own. Such a government would be based on Likud (27-28 seats), “Kulanu” (10 seats), The Jewish Home (“Ha’Bait Ha’Yehudi” – 8 seats), Lieberman’s “Yisrael Beitenu” party (5), and the religious parties Shas and United Torah (7 and 6 seats, respectively), for a total of about 63 seats. If “Yachad” gets in, he will have an even easier time. But there are some very serious problems with such a government that will make it a last resort for Netanyahu to form.

Firstly, such a government will be highly unstable. It will be a narrow government with a majority of only 3 members, based on 6 different parties, any of which can bring down the government at any time. The religious parties will clash with more liberal/secular elements in Yisrael Beitenu over issues of state/religion, and the hard-right Jewish Home party will clash with the centrist-right “Kulanu” party over public spending on settlements at the expense of inside Israel. Moreover, there is a lot of personal animosity between Netanyahu and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (for example, to this day Bennett has not been invited to the PM’s official residence in Jerusalem, and when he flew to Washington to support Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, he was prevented from riding on the plane with Netanyahu). Both Lieberman and Moshe Kahlon have broken from Netanyahu’s party and would supposedly prefer not to see him return to power.

Secondly, such a coalition, based on the most hardline nationalistic and religious elements in the right would be an international nightmare, and everybody knows it. It’s a coalition that would be inclined to build extensively in the settlements, oppose negotiations with Palestinians, and legislate anti civil-rights laws. It will be opposed outright by European governments and will be at odds with the US, as well. Even though he cannot join a left-wing government, Moshe Kahlon has reportedly expressed that he will not sit in such a government.

Therefore, although the numbers add-up for this government more easily, the nature of such a coalition itself will prevent it from being realized.

A national unity government:
this coalition between the left-wing Zionist Union and right-wing Likud has the most variables, but ultimately the most chances of forming. Such a coalition would be based on the foundation of Likud (27 seats), Zionist Union (26), and “Kulanu” for about 63 seats, and probably 1-2 more parties to complete the mix.

There are a number of big questions that are currently impossible to predict:

• Who will head such a government? Will it be only Netanyahu, or will there be some rotation arrangement between Netanyahu and Hertzog?

• What will be the basic tenets of the government? In the last days of the election Netanyahu broke hard to the right to gather votes from other right-wing parties and made a number of public statements against a national unity government and a Palestinian state that will be hard to back away from.

• What other parties will join the coalition? Hard-left Meretz and hard-right Jewish Home will certainly not join, nor will the Arab List. What about Yesh Atid? Or the religious parties? Netanyahu will want the religious parties, with whom he has been allied for years. But the Zionist Union will have a hard time joining a predominantly right/religious government by itself.

Normally, such big differences would preclude this possibility. However, there are a number of key indicators that suggest it:

• A right-wing coalition as outlined above will be a foreign-relations nightmare. In every government he has formed in the past, Netanyahu almost always had a left-wing or centrist “shield” to protect him against international criticism. In a right-wing government he will have no such protection.

• Israel’s President, Reuven (“Rubi”) Rivlin has already called for a national unity government. Although his power is limited, he carries a public moral voice.

• Moshe Kahlon has reportedly expressed privately that he will “force” a national-unity government if needed. Without him, Netanyahu doesn’t have a coalition.

So what happens next?

Final results will come in over the next few days, which may marginally change these results. However, with such close results, even a change of 1-2 seats might make a big difference.

Once final results are in, President Rivlin will call the heads of each of the parties for consultations as to who should form the next government. This will take about a week. Once Rivlin names a candidate, that candidate will have 4 weeks to form a coalition, with an optional 2-week extension.

It seems like Netanyahu is at a better position to secure a coalition and be named Prime Minister. Therefore, it is likely he will receive the mandate from the President to do so. He will probably quickly move to secure his ‘base’ partners of the Jewish Home, Lieberman, and religious parties (53 seats in total), hopefully Kahlon as well (10 seats), and once he has the base of a coalition in hand, turn to the Zionist Union and get them at a discount.
However, much depends of the negotiation tactics of each of the parties, including the smaller ones, and many question remain:

Will Netanyahu agree to a coalition government after repeatedly ruling one out? Will he be able to agree on basic guidelines with Zionist Union after breaking so hard to the right in recent days? Will Kahlon insist on a unity government? Will Zionist Union agree to a unity government without rotation in post of Prime Minister? Will it agree to enter such a government without a centrist/left partner such as “Yesh Atid”? Will the religious parties’ veto on “Yesh Atid” persist?

We’ll be smarter after the next few days. Even tonight the results have begun to change between initial results at 10 PM and the time these lines are being written. However, it is likely negotiations – with whichever partner – will take a long time, probably the full extent of the time allowed, and will have a lot of ups and downs. Prepare for a roller coaster…