Israel’s fifth election in less than four years, held on Tuesday (see my preview here), has done what the previous four failed to do: yielded a decisive majority for one of the two sides on the issue that divides the Israeli body politic. The issue is the fate of far-right leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and the verdict is in his favor.
Netanyahu and his allies will have an eight-seat majority, with 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament, or Knesset. Outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid has conceded defeat and Netanyahu will form a government including the fundamentalist parties and the fascists of Religious Zionism. Further prosecution of the various corruption cases against him will no doubt be a dead letter.
The term “lucky”, however, is more than just a figure of speech. The underlying majority of voter support for Netanyahu, while arguably real, is much narrower than those numbers would make you think. In a story that may now be depressingly familiar, his parliamentary majority is an artifact of a bad electoral system.
Let’s start with the raw numbers of votes. You can see the official figures here, and if you don’t read Hebrew (and don’t trust Google translate to give you sensible party names) you can use Wikipedia’s version. They show that 13 parties won more than a handful of votes; the five that are pro-Netanyahu won 49.6% between them, while the eight anti-Netanyahu had 48.9% – a difference of about 30,000 votes.
If you plug those numbers into a Sainte-Laguë calculation you get 60 seats for each side. If you use D’Hondt, which is slightly more favorable to larger parties, you get 62-58 in favor of Netanyahu. So how does Israel (which uses D’Hondt) get to 64-56?
Part of the answer, as you might have guessed, is thresholds. Parties with less than 3.25% of the vote are excluded from the seat distribution, and the two that came closest – Balad with 2.9% and Meretz with 3.16%, only about 4,000 votes short – are both anti-Netanyahu. Without the threshold they would have won three and four seats respectively.
Of itself, that doesn’t make a big difference, because it happens that most of those seats would have come at the expense of larger anti-Netanyahu parties.* But it works in conjunction with another important feature of the system. Parties that are ideologically aligned can make agreements to share their surplus votes, so that if they have enough votes between them they can win an extra seat even if neither on its own would have done so. This time around, that gave Likud one more seat (at the expense of Labor) due to its agreement with Religious Zionism.
Labor and Meretz also have a surplus agreement, but that’s no use because it only applies if both parties have reached the threshold in the first place. And without the threshold the allocation of the surpluses would have come out differently so that the final seat would have gone to Yesh Atid instead of Likud, bringing the overall totals to 61-59.
This would all be bad enough if the threshold was a long-standing and basically neutral feature of the system. But in fact it was increased, from a much fairer 2%, with the specific intention of excluding parties opposed to Likud. It is doing exactly what it was supposed to do.
What about that other 1.5% of the vote that didn’t go to one of the top 13 parties? Even without the threshold it wouldn’t have elected any MPs, but it bears on the question of whether the new government really has majority support. Unfortunately it was distributed among 27 small parties, many with only a few hundred votes and none with more than a third of a percentage point.
You can have a go yourself at trying to work out which side to classify them on – the Times of Israel has a comprehensive guide. For what it’s worth, it looks to me as if a majority of them, but not an overwhelming one, are anti-Netanyahu. If for argument’s sake we split them in the ratio 60/40, that brings Netanyahu’s support up to an overall majority, but a tiny one: just 50.2%.
But the whole exercise is unreal, because it ignores the much bigger distortion that no-one wants to talk about: the fact that the system counts only the votes of Israeli citizens, not the wishes of the more than four million Palestinians in the occupied territories, who have no political rights in Israel but whose future the new government (like its predecessors) claims the right to control.
And there’s not a lot the electoral system can do about that.
* Although it makes more of a difference to the parliament’s ideological balance, since Balad and Meretz are both on the left, while much of the anti-Netanyahu alliance is not.