Polls have closed in Israel and exit polls are showing no clear winner. What does it all mean?
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, shares initial thoughts on the initial results.
Question: We just watched the exit polls of Israel’s three leading broadcasting channels – what is your reaction? Are you surprised?
YP: Tradition and history tell us we have to take exit polls with a grain of salt. We have a long history of the exit polls with an inaccurate outcome. Having said that, assuming the numbers are correct, we are actually witnessing a quite dramatic outcome. For the first time after a decade there is a very high likelihood that Mr. Netanyahu is no longer going to be the Prime Minister of the State of Israel.
Q: As the real results come in the next step is that the President will have to give the mandate to one of the Members of Knesset to form a coalition — who do you think he can give it to and what are the possible coalition scenarios?
YP: We might enter a period of days and perhaps weeks, when it is unclear who is going to be the Prime Minister. This is an unprecedented situation, because neither does Mr. Netanyahu has a majority of 61 nor does Mr. Gantz. So both candidates will try to form a majority. It looks like Mr. Netanyahu’s path to 61 , assuming the exit polls are right, the path to 61 polls is blocked, while Mr. Gantz has more options. We might also see a change within the Likud. A new chairman of the Likud might be able to form a government with Blue and White, and then we will probably witness an outcome of a rotation of the position of the Prime Minister between Mr. Gantz and whoever the Likud will elect. So we are about to enter a period of political uncertainty.
Q: We saw in April that Liberman played the role of the kingmaker. Now he as between 8 and 10 seats according to the exit polls – what changes? Does he have even more power?
YP: If the exit polls are correct — it means that Liberman is the ultimate kingmaker. Netanyahu does not have a government without Liberman. Liberman can really dictate the makeup, to a certain extent, of the next government. Liberman doubling his power, or increasing his power dramatically, between 60% and 100% , from 5 to 10 seats, is a strong indication that Israelis voted on questions of religion and state. His agenda was to thwart the growing monopoly and appetite on questions of religion and state. Many Israelis supported this agenda. At the same time we are also see indications for an increase of the ultra-Orthodox, which is a mirror image of Liberman’s strength and political power.
Q: In the last elections there was a discrepancy between the exit polls and the final results. Do you think that there is a chance of that happening now as well? There will be changes when we get to the real results and will that make a difference?
YP: The data point that we have to observe is that Netanyahu is able to achieve a 61 majority of the right wing and ultra-Orthodox parties. He’s 4-7 seats away from that goal. That’s quite a distance. Even when we witness changes in the past, the changes in the relationships of the blocs weren’t as great, and so I would dare to say, that it would require quite a deviation from the outcome of the exit polls for Mr. Netanyahu to be able to form a narrow government, and it that respect, this evening might set Israel on a new political course.
Q: We see the Joint List did better — what does this mean for coalition scenarios? Will we see these Arab parties joining the coalition for the first time?
YP: It is unlikely that the Arab parties will join a coalition. Its more likely that some arrangements of support from the outside with some elements from the Joint List in return for political achievements for the Arab minority. That’s more likely — but clearly we have witnessed a dramatic rise in the levels of participation of the Arab minority from around 49% to around 62% or 63%, we still don’t know the final figure. This makes a huge difference in the relationship between the blocs and demonstrates that the Arab population changed its political behavior from virtual apathy four months ago to high levels of involvement this time.
Q: The ultra-Orthodox parties in the past partnered with Labor governments — is there any chance of them not going with Netanyahu? Perhaps sitting in a government with Gantz?
YP: Netanyahu is a natural ally of the ultra-Orthodox parties and they are committed to recommending him to form the government and so on. Now, assuming we are going to enter a new reality, whereby the ultra-Orthodox parties are not going to be able to build a coalition with Netanyahu, I think they will explore a coalition with Blue and White. That’s a very unnatural coalition for them and their constituency, it will be very difficult for such a coalition, both to be created and to be sustained. But I wouldn’t rule it out. I would deme it a low probability option.
Q: We know that President Trump has played an important role, and before April elections he recognized the sovereignty of Israel over the Golan Heights — did he play a role this time?
YP: Less so. President Trump provided the Golan Heights, a gift to Netanyahu. That was an indication that Netanyahu has a strong relationship with the American president. This is key to Israel’s security and affected Israeli voters. This time the relationship with the United States and the US President was already factored in. No new information came in and the agenda was more about questions of rule of law and religion and state, rather then about security.
Q: There was a lot of worry that voter turnout would be low — but it looks that it was even higher than in April. What do you think that indicates?
YP: That’s a strong indication of the health and vitality of the Israeli democracy, of the commitment of Israelis to be involved, to shape the future of our state and a demonstration of trust in our democracy and our democratic institutions. Its true that we were fearful of the phenomenon called voter fatigue, which characterizes democracies that go into consecutive election campaigns. It happened in other countries. In Israel rather than voter fatigue we witnessed voter enthusiasm, actually the numbers seemed to have risen. The final turnout numbers seem higher — perhaps 2% or3% higher than the last elections. We are proud of that.