Mark Mellman: It's not about the Benjamins, part II

Mark Mellman: It's not about the Benjamins, part II
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When we perceive big consequences, we’re naturally inclined to search for big causes. Witnessing a political earthquake, we assume there must be huge tectonic shifts somewhere in the electorate. 

After Israel’s recent election, commentators were seized with the revolutionary implications of Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE’s “loss.” But even if he ends up the loser (which, as discussed last week, is not certain), pundits will have difficulty finding big causes.

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Neither Netanyahu’s bad luck, nor Benjamin Gantz’s good fortune, has much to do with changed voter attitudes. As I noted last week, Israel’s election was not really about the Benjams—neither Netanyahu nor Gantz.

Surprising as it may seem, voters still preferred Netanyahu as prime minister to Gantz by a 10-point margin.

So, what accounts for the seemingly revolutionary results? 

Three key developments account for nearly all the difference between April’s elections and today’s situation. 

Massive movement to the left, or even the center, was not one of those developments. 

As I described here after the April election, bus and discotheque bombings after Palestinians refused a state, and the over 10,000 rockets that have rained down on Israel from Gaza since Israel withdrew every soldier and uprooted every settlement in that territory, decimated Israel’s left.

But the center didn’t rise up in this election either.

The Blue and White party got a smaller percentage of the vote in September than it did in April, while the larger set of Zionist center-left parties together got about nine-tenths of a point more than they did in the previous election. Meanwhile, parties on the right did about nine-tenths of a point less well.

Tiny changes by any reckoning, especially in a system governed by proportional representation. 

In seats, the Zionist center-left has one fewer than after the last election, while the right has two fewer than before.

What did change?

Most important, Avigdor Lieberman changed his mind. That’s right, one man.

In previous governments, Lieberman was happy to serve as part of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. It was Lieberman’s defection over personal animosity and principled objection to the power of the ultra-Orthodox that precipitated the April election and prevented Bibi from forming a coalition afterward. 

If Lieberman had continued his previous practice, Netanyahu would have been able to form a government after the April election and would have the parliamentary majority required to from a government again today.

It’s Bibi’s battle with one man that is preventing him from reclaiming his seat as prime minister.

But a political blunder by Netanyahu also contributed to his current problematic position. 

Concerned about losing support, and aware that being the largest party was advantageous, though not dispositive, he swallowed up two small parties, one on the center right; the other, a bizarre combination of religious and libertarian. 

He assumed that if he merged the center-right party into his own Likud and talked the libertarian religious into withdrawing, their votes would go to his Likud. They didn’t.

If the center-right party secured the same number of seats it garnered in April’s election, Netanyahu would still be two seats short of a majority, but tantalizingly close.

In September, the religious libertarians fell below the 3.25 percent of the vote required to claim Knesset seats, but if they had crossed that threshold this time, the two parties Bibi ejected from this election would have yielded his majority.

Finally, Israeli Arabs turned out to vote in significantly higher numbers than they had in April, giving the non-Zionist, majority Arab parties an additional three seats. (This resulted, in part, from another Netanyahu mistake — he attacked the Arab parties intending to juice right-wing turnout but raised Arab turnout instead.)

That wasn’t enough to give Gantz a majority. But if all those Knesset members had followed through on their plan to support Gantz, he would have had slightly more support in the Knesset than Netanyahu. As it is, Netanyahu enjoys slightly greater support. 

In the end, what brought so much hope was based on very little change.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.