Israelis will head to the polls on March 2 for a third time in less than 11 months in an effort to free the electoral logjam but experts say overall public opinion has changed very little.
Undecided voters, therefore, will be crucial in determining the outcome of the race. The myriad political parties, particularly the two major ones, are going after eligible voters who are on the fence about whether to vote or whom to vote for.
Eytan Gilboa, professor of politics and communications at Bar-Ilan University, said the two largest parties, the center-left Blue and White bloc and the center-right Likud, were appealing to voters based on various assumptions, including the notion that the citizenry is suffering from election fatigue.
Many analysts believe the record number of elections will depress turnout. People who have not yet decided whether to vote are particularly likely to stay home.
“Many are sick and tired of voting every few months, so we expect turnout to be lower than in the two earlier rounds,” Gilboa said. [Parties] are trying to fire people up and motivate them to go to the polls.”
Gilboa said the expected low participation had spurred some legislators to amend the legislation which makes Election Day a national holiday.
“Several members of Knesset suggested punishing those who do not want to vote by deducting a vacation day from workers who take the day off and do not participate,” he said.
Dahlia Scheindlin, a public opinion expert and political consultant currently advising the mostly Arab Joint List party, said one poll showed 54 per cent of Israeli adults were certain they would vote.
“In my experience, only people who say they are certain actually vote,” she told the Media Line. “It’s a little bit early. As we get closer to the election, I do expect that number to rise. I don’t think we are going to see only a 50 per cent turnout, but so far, I do not see indications of a rise in [participation].”
Many experts also contend that people who are committed to participating but are undecided on whom to vote for are less common this time around.
“From what I’ve seen, there are fewer undecided in this election than in previous elections. In general, they do it [hold an election] every four years, so then it’s more of a [major] decision,” Israeli pollster Mitchell Barak said.
Public opinion expert Scheindlin said that since this third election was called, more than 30 polls had been released showing very little movement in party support or in the size of the left and right blocs. She cautioned, however, that this did not mean that no one had changed their minds.
“Individuals may have shifted but the net numbers are the same,” she said.
Barak said that the proportion of undecided voters could be as high as 25 per cent, with many Israelis making their minds up on the weekend before the election.
“By that time,” he added, “people can see if there is any crisis or anything that is going to change their vote. At Friday night dinner [ahead of the Monday vote], families sit together, people talk, they’re more in the mood to think about their decision.”
A., who declined to give her name but asked to be identified as an Orthodox working mother of five from the centre of the country, is one such voter.
A fan of Gesher Knesset member Orly Levy, she voted for the Labor-Gesher joint list in the last election in September, based on its social and economic positions. However, she is uncertain about whether she will vote for it now, since this time, Labor-Gesher is running in a joint list with Meretz, which she feels is anti-religious.
“I think I see myself making the decision in the voting booth. The deciding factor is what I’m going to feel that day. If there is a war in Gaza or [other violence] … that would make me more right-wing,” she told The Media Line.
“If it’s quiet, I’ll vote for Labor. Voting Labor is changing things long-term,” she added. “I don’t just think about myself, I think about pensioners who can’t afford food.
“Most of my friends vote right-wing because of security [issues]. They don’t think about the economic [future]. When you’re in a situation where there is war on your doorstep, you get scared and can’t think long-term, because [that’s meaningless] if you’re going to die soon,” she said.
Bar-Ilan’s Gilboa believes that there will be fewer “floating” or undecided votes this time, because of party mergers on both sides on the ideological spectrum: Smaller far-right parties have joined forces in Yamina. On the Left, Labor and the rest of the Democratic Union have coalesced with the far-left Meretz to run on one ticket.
These mergers increase the likelihood that Yamina and Labor-Gesher-Meretz will get enough votes to pass the 3.25 per cent electoral threshold necessary to make it into the Knesset. “[Before], people on the left and the right were debating among themselves whether to go with a big party [for example the Likud or Blue and White] or with a small party [like Meretz] which may not have a chance to pass the threshold. Now this element does not exist, so we should expect fewer floating votes,” he said.
Gilboa contended that another assumption larger parties can make is that they will be able to count on the smaller parties to be part of their blocs when trying to assemble a 61-seat Knesset majority needed to form a stable government.
Batia Siebzihner, a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line, “People tend to vote for the same side as they did in the past. Those who moved to Blue and White were generally voting in the center,” regardless of who was heading the parties.
While there are fewer undecided in this election, Gilboa contended that the bulk of them are on the right, as Yamina, the Likud and Blue and White compete for like-minded voters.
He said that the Likud is trying to win by appealing to party voters who did not participate in the previous election. Blue and White, on the other hand, is trying to appeal to traditional Likud voters who are unhappy with Prime Minister and Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu.
“You have a battle between the big parties and a battle inside the Right. There is no such battle on the Left,” Gilboa said.
“Blue and White’s strategy is a two-step process: create more floating votes among the right and eventually win them,” he said. “The Likud’s goal is the opposite: keep the votes and increase them, by bringing out hundreds of thousands of voters who did not go to the polls last time, ostensibly Likud supporters.”
However, Scheindlin is not sure the Likud can rely on the large numbers of its voters who did not participate in the previous contest.
“There is a notion emanating within the Likud that 200,000 to 300,000 [of its] people didn’t vote [in September] and I’m not sure that they have demonstrated the calculus to prove that,” Scheindlin said.
According to Bar-Ilan’s Gilboa, the Likud is also trying to prevent its voters from moving to Yamina on the issue of annexing the West Bank.
Annexation has been a hot topic since U.S. President Donald Trump released his Middle East peace plan two weeks ago, which calls for segmenting off 30 per cent of the area to remain under permanent Israeli control.
Both the Likud and Yamina support immediate annexation, However, Netanyahu is willing to wait until after the election, accepting U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s point of view, which he expressed earlier this week.
Shmuel Sandler, professor emeritus of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said that Trump’s proposal might spur more Arab Israelis to go to the polls.
“Paradoxically, the American plan will bring out a lot of the Arabs to vote because of the threat that certain Arab towns will be annexed to a Palestinian state, and they don’t want to leave Israel,” he said.
Trump’s proposal gives a green light for possibly drawing Israel’s border so that Arab towns in the so-called Triangle, southeast of Haifa, become part of a future Palestinian state. However, senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office subsequently said this would not happen, as it would require the agreement of all sides.
According to pollster Barak, 60 per cent of Israeli Arab voters participated in the September election, up from 50 per cent the previous April.
Despite the 10 point increase, Israeli Arabs’ turnout is significantly lower than that of their Jewish counterparts in Israeli national elections.
Scheindlin said that boosting this demographic’s voting participation was the key to boosting the overall turnout, which averaged 69 per cent in last year’s two elections.
She noted that Jewish Israeli voter participation was at least in the mid-70 per cent range. The effective figure is higher when you take into consideration the Israelis who cannot vote because they are abroad on Election Day, she said.
“Eighty per cent is about the highest you can get in a democracy without mandatory voting,” Scheindlin said. “I don’t know how much more turnout you can get on the Jewish side but you can definitely get higher turnout on the Arab side, which would push [overall] voter turnout up.
Marc is one such Israeli Arab who is undecided about whether to participate in the election.
“I’m not sure if I will vote; it depends on how much social pressure I get from my family and friends,” he said.
Marc said if he does vote, his decision will be based on how it impacts his place of residence.
“I come from the Old City in Jerusalem and so I consider how the politicians will affect the area I live in,” he said.
While Marc is not sure whom he would vote for, he is certain about who not to support. “Definitely not Bibi [Netanyahu],” he said.
Israelis vote for parties or alliances of parties, determining the Knesset’s composition. Afterward, the president selects a member of Knesset as prime minister-designate, usually the head of the party that won the most seats, and that person must then try to form a government by cobbling together a coalition of different factions to get a majority of at least 61 seats.
“There are two things that will change the outcome of the next government. One is if the voters do something different, either turn out in greater numbers or change their minds, and so far I haven’t seen evidence of major shifts,” Scheindlin told The Media Line. “The second [way is through the actions of the] political elites who are responsible for this whole situation to begin with, whether it’s Netanyahu … or somebody else.”
“These people are much fewer in number but they can change the fate of the entire country as to whether we to go to [yet another election] or not,” she added.
With little change in the public opinion polls, Scheindlin believes the latter factor will be the deciding factor.
“The public can still make a change but right now, I’d put my money on the political elite being the ones who would have to hold off a fourth election by changing their minds,” she said.
Pollster Barak agrees that parliamentarians will play a crucial role in determining whether a new government is formed after March 2.
“There is a strong likelihood of another deadlock but I think the members of Knesset get it that they can’t drag the country into a fourth election,” he said.