On the eve of Israel’s 2009 elections, something rare happened in Israeli politics. Both Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, the front-runners for prime minister, gave victory speeches following a close election in which Livni’s party gained only one mandate over Netanyahu’s.
A week later, President Shimon Peres gave Netanyahu the first chance to form a government after a majority of party leaders recommended him to the president.
On Tuesday, this unique scenario might happen again; however, this time it may end differently for Netanyahu.
The confusion is a result of Israel’s election law, which gives the president the ambiguous power to decide which party leader “has the biggest chances of forming a majority coalition” and thus to become Israel’s prime minister. The president’s decision is based on his own understanding of the political map and on the recommendations of the elected party leaders and the number of mandates they represent out of Israel’s 120-seat Parliament.
According to final polls, Netanyahu has the biggest chance to form a government, but his Likud Party is three to five mandates behind Yizhak (Buji) Herzog’s “Zionist Camp” party. (One mandate equals total votes divided by 120, the number of the Parliament seats.) If the polls prove to be true, many believe that President Ruvi Rivlin will have to give Herzog the first chance to form a government due to his “obvious” win over Netanyahu. In the case that Herzog is not able to form a government, Netanyahu will get his chance.
Knowing this, many Israeli citizens plan to cast a tactical vote, which means voting for one of the two big parties instead of their preferred small party in order to directly choose Israel’s future leader.
Smaller parties are not sure how to respond to these tactical voters. For example, should the small, liberal Meretz party try to take voters from Herzog, knowing that they might help Bibi’s chances to become prime minister for the third time since 2009? Should Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Jewish Home party attack Netanyahu and take some mandates from him and, by that, sit in the opposition for the next four years?
But tactics are not the only thing that Israeli voters consider.
As many around the world know, these elections also mean a strategic choice between Herzog’s and Livni’s leftist Zionist Union party and Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party. A government led by Herzog will try to jump-start the negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank, as well as support President Obama’s efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, thereby rebuilding the relationship between Jerusalem and the White House.
On the other hand, Netanyahu’s government will mainly focus on internal economic issues that disturb many Israelis, and his right-wing allies will prevent him from offering any compromise to the Palestinians and will try to keep Jerusalem under full Israeli sovereignty in any future agreement.
Despite the enormous number of polls, the most well-known rule in Israeli politics is that it is impossible to predict the results of Election Day. That is why, like in every election in the Jewish State — the Israeli public has hard decisions to make before casting a vote.
Naor R. Bitton is an Israeli Public Policy Fulbright Scholar at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He served as an aide to the chairman of the Economic Committee in the Israeli Parliament and co-founded a local political party in Israel.