How Can a Majority Lose an Election?

Israel’s political system has been so manipulated and corrupted that election results rarely reflect public will.

| Topics: Election
Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Few would contest the fact that the majority of Israeli Jews are situated to the right of the political spectrum. And yet, last week’s election left the left-wing bloc slightly larger (57-55 seats) than the right-wing bloc. 

One explanation to this anomaly is simply a false division that includes the Arab parties as part of the Left. A few days ago, Member of Knesset Ahmad Tibi–head of the Ta’al party that along with three other factions makes up the Joint Arab List–said very clearly that “we can’t and won’t join a (Blue and White) coalition.” At best, said Tibi, the Arabs would help to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by recommending Blue and White head Benny Gantz as the next prime minister.

That’s how politics in Israel work. But for some reason, the media persists in labeling the Joint List as part of the left-wing bloc.

The State President, according to law, is the one who must decide which candidate has the best chance of forming a majority coalition, and his decision is heavily influenced by the number of Members of Knesset recommending each potential prime minister. And it’s not always the head of the largest party. For instance, in 2009, the Kadima party headed by Tzipi Livni became the largest Knesset party by one seat. But then-President Shimon Peres still chose Netanyahu to form the next government because he had the best chance of cobbling together a majority coalition. In fact, just 28 Members of Knesset recommended Livni to Peres, while 65 said he should tap Netanyahu. 

Just because the Arabs recommended Gantz doesn’t mean they will join his coalition. But it might compel Rivlin to give Gantz the first shot at forming a government, even if the left-wing bloc minus the Joint List is well short of a majority.

On it’s own, Blue and White has 33 seats. It’s natural coalition partners are the leftist Democratic Israel and Labor parties, who bring a combined 11 seats, boosting the total to 44 out of 120 seats. The wild card is Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which could join a left-wing coalition under the right terms, though Liberman can’t by any rational argument be considered left-wing. Still, he could provide an additional 8 seats, bringing the total to 52. And that’s a best-case scenario, meaning the Left has little, if any, chance of reaching a majority.

Gantz’s only real hope would be to somehow convince at least 9 right-wing Members of Knesset to desert their parties and join him. While that might seem an impossible task, Israeli politicians have proved in the past that, as they say in politics, nothing is impossible. 

When then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wanted to approve the 1993 “Oslo Accord,” just 56 MKs would support him. To get the majority he needed, Rabin turned to Hadash and Mada, two Arab parties that agreed to vote in favor of the agreement in return for promises of a special budget for the Arab sector. The Oslo Accord was thus thrust upon Israel by a minority government and by means of what was perceived as a political “bribe,” which explains the subsequent right-wing uproar.

The second reason that a majority can lose is that our law allows ad hoc lists formed only to win elections. The list system creates a false impression of the political divide, as the last election clearly shows. When breaking the lists into their respective parties, a whole different picture emerges.

If one separates Blue and White into its respective parties, Benny Gantz and his Israel Resilience party won just 15 seats, compared to 31 for Likud. Yesh Atid, the second part of Blue and White, gained 13 seats, and Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem faction barely passed the electoral threshold with 5 seats. This means that if Gantz, like Netanyahu, was a stand-alone candidate heading only his own party, he would have suffered a crushing defeat.

The last reason a majority can lose an election is, as many right-wing commentators note, due to relentless media campaigns aimed at delegitimizing a duly-elected prime minister. While the first two reasons enabling a minority to seize control rests squarely on the cynicism of politicians, public opinion swayed by a biased media puts responsibility on the voters, who have allowed themselves to be duped.

Erez Tadmor, author of Why You Vote Right and Get Left and a spokesperson for the Likud in the previous election, explained in a post-election Facebook post the anomaly of majority-as-minority this way: The Left has whitewashed “every means and manipulation to lure 2-3 seats from naïve right-center voters who have been worn down by decades of anti-Bibi campaigns.” Tadmor’s point is substantiated by the countless people who openly acknowledged, again and again, that Bibi is guilty until proven innocent, a travesty of justice that unfortunately has become the norm. 

Whichever way one chooses to explain it, however, the fact remains that in Israel, a majority can lose an election.

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