Likud Long Knives Come Out for Bibi as Poll Numbers Drop

March 13, 2015 3:06 p.m.

We have four more polls released today, only a handful of days out from the Israeli election. They show a small but clear and hardening lead for the Zionist Camp/Labor Party over Netanyahu’s Likud. Three polls show ZC/Labor with a four-seat lead over Likud. Another shows a two-point advantage for ZC/Labor. (Here’s the best aggregation of all the polls here.)

(Just after I published this post, two new polls were released, each also showing a four-seat ZC/Labor lead.)

Two points stand out in the polls. Likud is dropping and now ZC/Labor seems to be rising — at least a bit. Also notable is that the center-right bloc itself seems to be under pressure.

As we discussed earlier, one of the assumptions or key focuses of this election was how the right-wing vote would divide up between Likud, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu. The last of those three is Avigdor Lieberman’s party. Their numbers have dropped dramatically, for a number of reasons, but largely because of a major corruption scandal. So they have been largely neutralized and are hovering right above the electoral threshold of four seats. The question has been whether Netanyahu could pull seats from the Jewish Home party to his right and bump up his numbers or whether the flow would go in the other direction.

But the latest polls show suggest that neither is happening. Likud is shedding seats. But they’re not going to Jewish Home. Jewish Home is either holding its own or itself losing ground. In other words, it is not just Netanyahu and Likud that is slipping. The two right-wing parties are shedding seats toward the center. Probably mainly to Kulanu (headed by a former Likud politician) and some to religious parties.

Here’s another critical issue to be aware of. Like most parliamentary democracies, Israel has an electoral threshold. You have to get a certain percentage of the votes or you get nothing at all. This is the first election since the threshold was raised from 2 to 3.5 percent. You need to get to four seats. If you don’t, you get nothing. Ironically, this was pushed in large measure by the aforementioned Avigdor Lieberman, seemingly to squeeze out the small Arab parties. But buffeted by that scandal, it is Lieberman’s party which might end up getting squeezed out. And the Arab parties (and the Arab-Jewish Hadash party) got their act together and formed a joint list which looks likely to increase their collective representation.

Here’s why that matters. The current poll of polls run by Haaretz shows four parties at 6 seats or lower. That is one right-wing party, one left-wing party and two religious parties — one somewhat centrist on non-religious issues and one far right. Each of those parties is in real danger of falling below the threshold. All might make it. But if one or more does not, that could dramatically alter the seat counts of other major parties. What’s more, whether it’s a party of the right or the left could be hugely important.

For instance, Meretz is a left-wing party which is a descendent of the left wing of the Zionist labor movement. Meretz has been the ironic casualty of ZC/Labor’s success. ZC/Labor has needed to pull together as many center and left votes as possible to beat Netanyahu and get the first chance to form a government. But if Meretz falls much further it could drop below the threshold, and suddenly four, five or six seats Herzog really needs to build a government disappear.

The implications are not quite as acute, but there is a parallel on the right with Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu. Comparable effects could be felt if one of the religious parties falls short.

In a U.S. presidential election, late polls can give you a fairly granular and precise read on the result because at least the national popular vote is a zero-sum game. But the multitude of parties in Israel, combined with the raised electoral threshold, create a level of multiplicity that makes definitive polling predictions very difficult.

As we’ve discussed numerous times, the coalition math is inherently more difficult for Herzog than Netanyahu. But the problem for Netanyahu is that this week’s movement in the polls does not seem driven by any particular news development — notwithstanding plausible news events discussed here. What seems more likely is that the cohort of undecided voters were waiting until the final days to make a decision and that decision is breaking against Netanyahu.

That kind of late trend is difficult to arrest and as often as not accelerates into election day.

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