Kafe Knesset: Election Day Edition

Election Day has arrived | The historic stakes | Today’s schedule and what could play out over the next few days

Welcome to a special election day edition of Kafe Knesset: Your daily guide on everything driving the conversation in Israeli politics. I’m Neri Zilber and thank you to our daily subscribers for your interest and support. If you are not yet a subscriber, please sign up here. You can also follow me @NeriZilber and please email Neri@KafeKnesset.com or reply to this newsletter with your news tips and feedback. Thanks!

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Election Day Is Here — The Historic Stakes: The citizens of Israel are going to the polls today. The contentious campaign just passed has nearly seen it all: a dramatic Christmas Eve dissolution of the government, the Attorney General’s decision to indict the incumbent for corruption, the entry onto the scene — and rise — of a neophyte former army commander, the last-minute merger of said neophyte with an opposition rival, a military escalation in Gaza, Trump and Putin, Iranian hackers and Kahanists, endless recriminations and viral videos.

It didn’t start off this way, but at the end of this long road stand two men offering the country a binary choice for the best path forward: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, continuity and change. The stakes could not be higher, and not just in terms of future policy. Whatever happens today history will be made.

Netanyahu is going for a fourth consecutive term in office — and fifth overall dating back to the 1990s — after a decade straight at the top. If re-elected Bibi will, come July, break founding father David Ben-Gurion’s cumulative record and become Israel’s longest serving premier. Netanyahu is also the first sitting PM to be indicted — contingent on a hearing, also coming in July.

Gantz is the first political novice to ever mount a credible challenge for the premiership. The retired IDF chief of staff has never been a parliamentarian, let alone a government minister. His career as a politician can be measured in months (since December), and the existence of his party — Blue and White — measured in mere weeks (since late February). A merger between three separate factions, Blue and White’s capability as a ruling party is untested, to say nothing of its future if it were to lose.

In this respect Blue and White is a symptom of a larger political shift rightward among younger Israelis. For the first time in Israeli history, this election will have voters (18 years old, first timers) who will not have lived under a Labor prime minister. As a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute made very clear, younger Israelis overwhelmingly prefer Netanyahu (65 percent vs 17 percent among those aged 18 to 24), while older Israelis gravitate to Gantz (53 percent vs 35 percent among those 65 and older). Every election is described as “historic” or “fateful.” But this one does feel like a genuine crossroads for the Jewish state, where what comes next doesn’t quite resemble what came before...no matter how things shake out at the ballot box later today.

Election Cheat Sheet: In addition to Blue and White and Netanyahu’s Likud, another 12 parties are in the running for seats in the next Knesset. To make sense of the unprecedented number of parties, Kafe Knesset highly recommends this explainer by the Times of Israel….

Eight of the smaller factions are hovering around the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, potentially altering the balance of power between the right and left blocs — and by extension the identity of the next PM. In Israel’s parliamentary system cobbling together a 61-seat governing coalition is, at bottom, a math problem. It’s good to know what the variables are ahead of time….

Today’s Schedule (And Possibly Beyond): Election Day in Israel is a national holiday, with public transportation running and in some cases even free — all to encourage voter turnout. Polls will be open from 07:00 until 22:00 local time (3pm EST)....

Right after voting ends the three major television networks will release the exit polls compiled from some 60 representative polling stations all around the country. This is the first major landmark of the night, providing a sense of the overall results — but some caution is warranted. In the last election in 2015 the exit poll results for the two largest parties were off by a combined six seats. Likud and its main challenger Zionist Union were shown essentially tied at 27. Likud ended up with 30; Zionist Union 24….

Actual votes will begin to be counted immediately, with tentative results updated on the Central Elections Committee website throughout the course of the night. By early tomorrow morning roughly 90 to 95 percent of votes will have been counted, giving the public a genuine overview of where things stands. And yet, as mentioned above, the large number of parties and fine margins involved (especially with regard to the electoral threshold) make these last votes potentially crucial. It could be the case that we’re waiting until Thursday for real clarity….

Potential Scenarios: As Kafe Knesset has stressed repeatedly in recent weeks, anything can still happen. However, there are three scenarios worth taking into account:

Likud wins outright: This is by far the most straightforward (and if pundits are to be believed the most likely) option. Likud is the largest party, beating Blue and White head-to-head, and the right-wing bloc of parties all together have a 61-seat majority. The result: PM Netanyahu….

Likud wins head-to-head but the Left holds a ‘blocking majority’: The same scenario as above with the important difference that it’s now the left-wing bloc of parties (including the two Arab factions) who all together hold a 61-seat majority. This is called a parliamentary “blocking majority.” For this to happen, though, many different pieces would have to fall into place — not least several of the smaller right-wing parties not making it over the threshold (with the two left-wing parties succeeding). The chances of this are slim but not non-existent. The result: Uncertainty, with President Reuven Rivlin likely giving Netanyahu first opportunity at forming a government but Gantz well-positioned to capitalize if he fails….

Blue and White wins head-to-head but the Right holds a majority: Arguably the most likely option, with Blue and White emerging as the largest party but the right-wing bloc holding a majority of seats. Much will depend on the size of the gap between the Likud and Blue and White and, ultimately, on Rivlin’s decision. Throughout the campaign Gantz and his partners have pointed to a gap of four to five seats as the crucial difference that would force the president to task them with forming a government. What will the president do if, say, the gap between Bibi and Gantz is a seat or two? The result: Uncertainty, with Rivlin most likely giving Gantz first opportunity. Whether he’ll be able to form a governing coalition is a different question….

It’s worth recalling that this scenario has only transpired once in Israeli history, in 2009, when Bibi actually lost to Tzipi Livni and her centrist Kadima faction by a seat (28-27). An interesting anecdote is that on election night both sides declared victory: Kadima as the largest faction, the Likud as the most likely to form a coalition….

That year, one senior Likud official was interviewed directly after the exit polls were released. “Despite the disappointment in prestige...there’s a clear decision [in favor] of the ‘nationalist camp’ with 63 Knesset members, something that certainly requires entrusting the task of forming a government” to Benjamin Netanyahu. That Likud official’s name was Reuven Rivlin (watch here from the 1:56:00 mark). This is exactly what happened. Then President Shimon Peres, after consultations with the various parties, tasked Netanyahu with forming a government. Bibi has been prime minister ever since.

(*This post has been updated since it was first published.)