13. The Israeli Election: Too Close To Call?

Israel holds its fourth election in two years this coming Tuesday, March 23. The main issue is whether Bibi Netanyahu will continue in power. Is it really possible that, this close to the election, the outcome remains unpredictable?

Yes. Israel voting is actually more predictable than many other places, but the peculiarities of coalition-building make post-election bargaining into a morass. The balance of pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi forces is so delicate that even the slightest blip in the results could determine the outcome.

Some observers burble on about how Israeli election polls are just as inaccurate as those elsewhere. Actually they are wrong. Polls in the past have been reasonably accurate. Israeli pollsters have an easier task since voters choose parties, not personalities, there are no geographic divisions, and voting patterns are fairly stable. The population is relatively small and sampling methods are sophisticated.

The margin of error in Israeli polls is, therefore, a respectable one to four percent, depending on sample size. But in an election where a majority may be won by only one or two seats, that makes the exact outcome unpredictable.

While right and religious parties together will get around two-thirds of the seats, the right is split into five parties, two of which have vowed not to join a government under Bibi. That leaves Bibi and his right/religious allies with roughly half the seats -- but just how roughly is the key question.

There is even talk of Bibi bringing in Ra'am, an Arab party, in order to cross the finish line. Ra'am is a largely Islamist party, socially conservative, that broke with its leftist allies. But could it sit in the government with the Religious Zionists, a party that includes disciples of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane? No Arab party has ever been included in a governing coalition, and the first one to do so will become a bedfellow of the Kahanists?

Not that the anti-Bibi forces, also with roughly half of the seats, will necessarily have a better shot at forming a government. They would have to bring together Arab parties and the anti-Bibi right -- an unlikely prospect -- or strong secularist parties (Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitenu) together with the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) religious parties -- an equally daunting challenge.

On top of that, there is another joker in the deck. Four of the smaller parties are polling very close to the threshold (3.25%, or four seats) for being represented at all. If any or all fail to clear the threshold, that changes the calculations for all the other seats. Even the best polling cannot predict the exact outcome of such a convolution.

So would a fifth election find a way out of this impasse? Only if Bibi were removed from the equation. And don't count on that.