Monday, February 9, 2015

Zionist Union Gains Aren't Enough To Govern

A new Times of Israel poll shows the center-left Zionist Union block in a slight lead over Prime Minister Netanyahu's Likud party. However, the poll also shows that the largest plurality of Israeli voters are "undecided" on which party to vote for in the March 17th election. The poll was a phone survey of 824 likely Israeli voters.

It is important to keep in mind that the largest party may not necessarily form the next government in Israel. Precedents as recent as 2009, where Likud won one fewer seat than Kadima but was chosen to form the government, are events that could easily be repeated. 

A winning party cannot form a coalition without a 61-seat majority in Israel's 120-seat parliament. However, it's unclear that the Zionist Union would be able to cobble together enough seats. Exacerbating the difficulty, the Zionist Union has been pushing to exclude Arab-Israeli MK Hanin Zoabi from running in the elections, a move which has raised the ire of the United Arab List. Even if the parties reconciled post-election, it's not clear that a Zionist Union/Meretz/United Arab List/Religious party coalition would be possible or stable.

On the other hand, PM Netanyahu would likely have the support of HaBayit HaYehudi, which has created competition for the Yisrael Beiteinu party. The leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, is already vying for the Defense Ministry portfolio, indicating that he expects to be a major coalition partner. Netanyahu would also likely retain the support of religious parties if Likud were to win.

In the 2013 elections, the centrist Yesh Atid party did surprisingly well in elections and was vital to forming a governing coalition. This time around, the centrist Kulanu party gives the Prime Minister more options, and he is likely to pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy with regards to each party's support. However, if the Zionist Union party were to win, it's likely each of those parties ultimately would join the government as well. However, both parties are likely to stay neutral until after the elections to keep their options open. All small parties will continue to vie for votes to increase their bargaining power post-election. Especially given the large number of undecided Israelis voters, analysts should pay close attention to these parties.

Reacting to these small parties, Prime Minister Netanyahu's strategy has been to siphon votes from the far-right into Likud. His focus on the Iran issue, most notably in his upcoming speech to Congress, is evidence of such. Iran is not a particularly partisan issue in Israel, but Netanyahu's speech could appeal to the far right base which mistrusts the international community and a potential nuclear deal. In giving this speech, however, Bibi must be cautious not to give the Zionist Union a critical opportunity to mobilize the party base in opposition to a speech which has been controversial in both Israel and the United States.