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Don’t Believe the Hype — Bibi Is Still in Driver’s Seat

With the Knesset election season heading into the homestretch, Israelis are discussing the last week’s final polls, potential results and coalition permutations. While these polls give cause for the left to dream of a March Madness Cinderella story, recent election poll history suggests it is all going to end up in tears.

The air of change has not been this strong since 2003, when the Likud party upended Labor in the wake of the collapse of the Oslo peace process. Security heavyweights like ex-Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin are publicly endorsing Isaac Herzog, the leader of the leftist Zionist Union. Herzog and his political partner Tzipi Livni, felt emboldened to make a public visit to a traditional bastion of Likud support, the Carmel market, where Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai met them for a drink amid merchants and visitors. Michal Kesten-Keidar, the widow of an officer killed in last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, Lt.-Col. Dolev Keidar, became a symbol of this movement for change at an anti-Netanyahu rally last Saturday with her passionate speech.

Over 70% of Israelis say they want change at the top, but specific poll results remain confusing. Zionist Union is projected to win the most number of seats, some 24-26 out of 120 in the legislature. Yet, when asked which candidate is most fit to be prime minister, Netanyahu beats out Herzog by a 48%-38% margin. Moreover, the bloc of right-wing and religious parties, which represent the nationalist camp, is projected to win 65 seats. The leftist bloc, representing the peace camp, is only expected to garner 43-44 seats.

Given Israel’s parliamentary system, pollsters cannot predict the makeup of the next Knesset with the deadly accuracy Nate Silver did regarding the U.S. Congress. Israeli pollsters have a reputation for getting things wrong, going back to the 1980s and 1990s when Shimon Peres was repeatedly projected to become prime minister. Even Nobel Prize winner Prof. Yisrael Aumann called last week for legislation to regulate the currently “unreliable” polls.

Thus, Israelis feel free to let their wishes and desires conceive alternative realities. A friend of mine who works for a former Knesset member speculated that if each of the leftist and center parties would do 1-2 seats better than projected, Herzog indeed could be the next prime minister. He, and many others in Israel, can point to recent elections in Israel as a source of hope. Just two years ago, Yesh Atid, the centrist party led by television personality Yair Lapid, crushed projections of 11-13 seats by winning 19. Another newcomer, the Pensioners, ended up with 7 seats in 2006 when they were supposed to win just two in 2006. These parties were boosted by voters who abandoned their traditionally preferred parties at the last moment for a promise of change. So, if the parties busted projections of previous final polls, why not now?

The reason this scenario is unlikely, as polls going back to 2003 reflect, lies in the nature of Israeli voters. The collapse of Oslo in 2000 followed by the second Intifada undermined the left, which went from never having fewer than 48 seats through 1999 to failing to surpass 34 Knesset seats since 2003. Meanwhile, the right and religious parties, which save for Shas have not backed a Labor-led government since 1977, have maintained a bloc in the mid- to upper-60s. Voters do not switch between these blocs. When they do change their mind at the last minute, they usually vote for another party within their bloc, or at best drift toward the center.

The correlation between the final polls of the past four elections and actual Knesset results reflects this trend. While polls can be wildly inaccurate on an individual basis, they are extremely competent at projecting the makeup of the blocs. The right/religious bloc has yet to fare more poorly than two seats in elections compared to what was expected of them. The leftist bloc each time finished within three seats of the final projection.

Consequently, all those hoping for a change of prime minister should not hold their breaths. Given the latest projections of 65 seats for the rightist and religious parties, their bloc should obtain at least 63 on Tuesday. That does not mean it will be easy for Netanyahu to cobble together a coalition, as many pundits have noted. However, it does rule out the scenario by which Herzog gets first dibs on forming the next government.

Let’s hope I’m wrong.

Steven Klein is a senior editor at Haaretz English Edition and university lecturer. He tweets at @stevekhaaretz

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