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Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel, 05/15/2017 © paparazzza / Shutterstock

Netanyahu’s Indictment Doesn’t Mean He Won’t Win

The stigma of corruption surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu could lead even more Likud supporters to hide their electoral preferences.

On February 28, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his decision to indict Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing investigations in three different cases and could be found guilty of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Prior to Mandelblit’s announcement, there was a widespread conviction that the indictment would affect the electoral prospects of his party, Likud, in the general election that will take place on April 9. A public survey published by The Times of Israel had found that Likud could drop from 29 to 25 projected seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Moreover, over a quarter of those who initially planned to vote for Likud said they would desert the party in case of an indictment.

However, while Netanyahu’s prosecution has moved to the next stage, the expected consequences have not materialized. The electoral polls published after February 28 do not reflect any change in the volume of public support toward the embattled prime minister. The average of the different polls published in February prior to the indictment showed that Likud would gain around 30 seats. Since Mandelblit’s decision, polls forecast that Likud will control 29 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

It is also relevant to observe the case of the New Right, a recently created party headed by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennet, which would be a likely destination for disenchanted Likud voters. Nevertheless, the New Right has experienced a small fall in the polls since Mandelblit presented charges against Netanyahu. The Blue and White coalition, created after the merger of Benny Gantz’s Resilience Party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, continues to lead all the electoral polls. The coalition’s leaders have been warning that in the case of Netanyahu’s victory, the prime minister would immediately pass legislation to secure his immunity from prosecution, but the message does not seem to have had a desired impact as support for Netanyahu has not declined.

THE LIMITATIONS OF ELECTORAL POLLING 

Electoral polls, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Rob Santos, president of the American Statistical Association, explained that pollsters rely on the adage that the best predictor of future performance is past performance. This means that an important change in the political panorama between two elections will introduce new elements of uncertainty in the pollsters’ already difficult job.

When the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu coalition contested the 2013 election, the results were considerably below what most polls had predicted — and far below the combined total of 42 seats the two parties had prior to the elections. The prospective performance of the electoral Blue and White coalition seems even more difficult to predict than that of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu if we take into account that the Resilience Party was created as recently as December 2018.

Electoral coalitions do not always maximize votes. This might not be a great problem in plurality or majoritarian electoral systems. On the contrary, it is highly problematic when a country has a very proportional electoral system with a low threshold. Israel is the paradigmatic example of this system. Sona Nadenichek Golder, professor of political science at the Pennsylvania State University, writes that Israel has seen “a number of successful pre-electoral coalitions.”

So far, Blue and White is polling higher than the combination of Resilience Party and Yesh Atid before the merger. However, looking back at history, Golder notes that “pre-electoral coalitions are more likely to form and be successful in countries that have a disproportional electoral system.” Dahlia Scheindlin, a leading international public opinion analyst, recommends reading election polls by focusing “on trends, range, and averages.” If we consider the average of Likud and Blue and White in the electoral polls, a clear picture emerges. The Likud is around four seats behind Blue and White, and the trend is stable. Such a distance is clearly within the margin of error.

The fact that Likud is organized around the figure of Netanyahu has not acted against the party after the indictment. In fact, one does not need to believe that Netanyahu is being unjustly accused in order to vote for him. All it takes is to be convinced that, despite Netanyahu’s criminal activities, the current prime minister remains the best option for Israel. According to a poll published by The Times of Israel, after Netanyahu’s indictment only 10% of Likud voters opined that the probes against him are “extremely serious and should not be taken lightly.”

After all, Israel is a country built on the occupation of Palestinian lands, especially since the 1967 Six-Day War. Furthermore, Likud voters are especially hawkish regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Thus, it should not be so surprising that they believe in the Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means. If Netanyahu tried to bribe the press, they may think, it was because the media was being unfair to him and jeopardizing his work in the pursuit of the public good.

SHY LIKUDISM

There is also the undeniable possibility of a presence of “shy Likudism.” The original term, “shy Tory,” gained prominence in the 1990s and refers to the theory that a part of the British conservative voters does not want to openly admit its political preferences. When confronted by pollsters, they sometimes prefer not to answer. On other occasions, they mislead pollsters by saying they will vote a party other than the Conservatives. There is good reason to argue that some prospective Likud voters could be behaving in a similar way. Polls ahead of the 2015 election severely underestimated the public support enjoyed by the party.

This time, the stigma of corruption surrounding Netanyahu could lead even more Likud supporters to hide their electoral preferences. This may have had an impact on the polls conducted before the attorney general’s announcement and after it. There are two reasons for this. First, Mandelblit’s decision was, at least to a certain extent, already expected. Second, strong rumors about Netanyahu’s corruption have circulated for a long time.

While cross-country comparisons have a limited value, the case of the 2015 Spanish elections is noteworthy. The conservative Popular Party (PP), which had been in government since 2011 and was enmeshed in multiple corruption scandals, was forecast to garner around 25% of the votes. In the end, PP won almost 29%.

It is not far-fetched to argue that Likud and Blue and White are neck-to-neck ahead of the coming elections. In fact, Likud could easily be ahead in the electoral race. However, we should not forget the specifics of the Israeli parliamentary system. It is not enough for a party to garner plurality among the voters. The party will also need to receive the support of a majority of the Knesset to form a government. Netanyahu himself became prime minister in 2009 despite Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party winning the most votes.

Thus, the electoral performance of the former government partners of Likud such as Shas and United Torah Judaism will prove decisive. All in all, as journalist Ben Caspit intelligently notes, “it is unclear whether the outcome of the April 9 elections will resolve Israel’s current political predicament and permit the formation of a new government.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.