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Analysis: Can the Israeli Right get 61 seats without Liberman?

Before midnight Wednesday, the 22nd Knesset dissolved itself, sending Israel to its third election in eleven months.

Following two deadlocked Knessets and the longest caretaker government in Israel’s history, the question remains whether the new elections, slated for March 2nd, will end the stalemate between Right and Left – or deepen it further.

Recent polls released to the public show a stalemate, or, in one recent poll, a victory for the Left, with the left-Arab bloc reaching the 61 seats needed for a majority.

Against this backdrop, some on the Right have lamented that without Avidgor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party – a secular rightist faction which pulled away from the right-wing bloc and called for a national unity government sans haredim and ‘messianic settlers’ – the right-wing – religious bloc can no longer win elections on its own, and that some deal must eventually be brokered with the center-left Blue and White.

Is 61 Seats Achievable?

In reality, however, a right-wing victory – that is, an outright victory with 61 seats, not including Yisrael Beytenu – isn’t all that farfetched.

The Israeli Right had a 61-seat majority without Yisrael Beytenu in the 20th Knesset, from 2015 to 2019, and would have netted a 62-seat majority in the April elections to the 21st Knesset had the New Right not come up 1,400 votes short of the electoral threshold.

In fact, in April, the Right, without Yisrael Beytenu, received a larger percentage of the vote (51.43%) than it did in 2015, when it received 51.33% of the vote.

But since not only the New Right, but also Zehut failed to cross the threshold, wasting a total of 256,629 votes, or the equivalent of between six and seven seats, the Likud and its allies were left one seat short of a majority, with just 60 seats.

Then, in September, curiously, the right-wing bloc plummeted from 60 seats to just 55, below the left-wing – Arab bloc’s 57 seats.

What Shattered the Right in the Last Election?

This was widely attributed to high turnout in the Arab sector. While that certainly was a factor, it simply does not explain what happened to the Right, and what created the political deadlock which gave neither side a clear advantage.

In fact, at least three factors were at play in the September election, creating the ‘perfect storm’ which weakened the Right, leaving the Likud and its allies far from a majority: high Arab turnout, low turnout on the Right, and alliances which minimized, rather than maximized the Right’s pool of possible voters.

First, Arab turnout was relatively high in the September election. The Joint Arab List party, which received 13 seats, becoming the third largest party, received 470,211 votes, or 10.6% of all ballots, with many more Arab voters backing left-wing parties like the Democratic Union, Labor, and Blue and White.

The Joint List’s showing in the September election was a bit of an anomaly, with the Joint List, or its constituent parties, typically netting about 8% to 9% of the votes.

Still, Arab turnout alone could not have empowered the Left and handicapped the Right.

The 2015 election also featured relatively high Arab turnout, with the Joint Arab List also netting 13 seats, and receiving actually a slightly higher percentage of the total vote, at 10.61%.

Nevertheless, the Right won a clear victory in that election, with 61 seats, not including Yisrael Beytenu’s six mandates.

The Right’s Vanishing Voters

A second factor was a relative decrease in turnout on the Right. While the overall turnout rate increased in the September election, rising from 68.5% to 69.8%, in right-wing strongholds it declined.

In Judea and Samaria, for instance, it declined by 1.6 points, from 78.4% turnout to 76.8%.

That absolute decline was exacerbated by the even greater relative decline caused by the fact that elsewhere (particularly in the Arab sector), voting rates went up.

The actual number of voters for the Likud and its likely allies – Shas, United Torah Judaism, Yamina, and Otzma – actually went down, so that the decline was not only relative, but absolute.

The Likud and its allies received 2,216,547 votes in April, but only 2,056,855 in September.

Bad Alliances

A third factor that hurt the Right was the migration of voters from the Likud and its allies to rival parties, typically either Blue and White or Yisrael Beytenu, which surged from five seats in April to eight in September. In terms of voters, Yisrael Beytenu went up by a whopping 79% from the April election to the September election, rising from 173,004 to 310,154 votes.

While some of Yisrael Beytenu’s new voters undoubtedly came from Blue and White, as pollster Shlomo Filber has claimed, many also came from the Right, switching from center-right factions like Kulanu and the New Right.

It was a phenomenon Filber also pointed to, noting that while the Likud and Kulanu merged prior to the September election, most of Kulanu’s voters didn’t follow.

As is shown by a Maagar Mohot poll conducted in September, on the eve of the election, voters who backed Kulanu in April mostly did not follow their party to the Likud after the two factions united.

Just 23% of voters who backed Kulanu in April said they planned to vote for the Likud, while 26% said they planned to vote Blue and While, with another 14% who said they planned to vote for Yisrael Beytenu, and eight percent who said they planned to vote for Labor-Gesher, with only 3% moving to the right-wing Yamina. Thus, according to the poll, nearly half of Kulanu’s two seats-worth of voters migrated to the center-left or Left, a further 14% to Yisrael Beytenu, and only a quarter staying in the right-wing bloc.

Even the New Right, which placed itself firmly in the right-wing bloc, lost voters to the center-left and to Yisrael Beytenu when it merged with the Jewish Home to form Yamina. Just two-thirds of its voters from April said they planned on voting for Yamina, while about a tenth of its voters moved to Yisrael Beytenu or Blue and White.

Fifteen percent of Zehut’s voters also said they planned to vote for Blue and White or Yisrael Beytenu, after Zehut dropped out of the race.

All in all, the right-wing – religious bloc likely lost about three seats-worth of votes to Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu combined.

How the Right Can Win Again: Lessons for 2020

If the above is correct, what lessons can be gleamed for next year’s election?

First, one thing is clear: the Right does have the potential to win an outright victory without Yisrael Beytenu – it has done so in the recent past, and could have repeated that feat earlier this year had it not been for the New Right’s narrow loss.

Such losses on the Right by parties which fail to clear the electoral threshold – including not only the New Right and Zehut’s losses in April; but also Otzma Yehudit and its predecessor in September 2019, in 2013, and in 2006; and Yahad in 2015 – have made clear the importance of unity on the Right, to prevent factions from wasting votes in campaigns that cannot clear the 3.25% electoral threshold.

That is a crucial lesson, one whose importance should not be ignored.

But it also led to some clear mistakes in the formation of alliances intended to maximize the right-wing vote, while actually driving some voters away from the right-wing bloc.

The decision in December 2018 by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked to bolt the Jewish Home and form a liberal-right party, later named the New Right, drew its fair share of criticism both for its timing and the way the split from their former political home was executed.

Yet the logic behind the split was actually fairly sound, even if implemented poorly.

The ‘Ideological Right’, that is, the parties to the right of the Likud, is made of up very different kinds of voters whose right-wing ideologies differ greatly.

Bennett and Shaked bolted the Jewish Home – National Union in large part because they felt the party’s Hardal (haredi-National Religious) wing had views on issues of religion and state which were incompatible with their own, and those of their voters. And they were correct.

The socially conservative hardal wing of the ideological Right has some things in common with liberal-right voters, like on issues of territory, security, and economic policy, but there are also major areas of disagreement.

While the base of the Jewish Home – National Union is almost entirely religious, the New Right was and is a party of both religious and secular voters; people whose political beliefs are rooted in classical liberalism and who favor right-wing policies on judicial reform and the future of Judea and Samaria, but who also support surrogacy for gay and lesbian couples and don’t necessary back efforts to maintain the religious status quo at the Western Wall.

The New Right’s neutral position on issues of religion and state offered the latter kind of voters a political home within the right-wing bloc. But when the party again ran with the Jewish Home and National Union in September, thousands of voters ditched the New Right for Yisrael Beytenu or Blue and White.

Rather than maximize the possible pool of voters, the New Right – Jewish Home alliance actually may have ended up doing more harm than good, while a third faction, Otzma Yehudit, may have been a better fit for the Jewish Home.

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