The era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [is] coming to an end," read one Reuters headline. Similarly, Slate declared Netanyahu to be "Israel's Sore Loser," explaining that "he has botched his re-election the same way he has botched everything else." Hundreds of other news items and analytical articles in recent weeks prophesied the demise of Israel's embattled prime minister.
Today, of course, a triumphant Netanyahu is laying plans for a new government, and the media should be asking themselves why they tend to make the same sort of Dewey-Defeats-Truman mistakes, cycle after cycle, about Israeli elections. During the last round in 2013, the New Yorker's David Remnick proclaimed that "the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right." Remnick was not alone, either. Pundits across the board predicted the meteoric rise of right-wing politician Naftali Bennett. Indeed, this was going to be the "Darth Bennett" government. In the end, Bennett's party, Jewish Home, mustered only 12 seats in the Knesset, while centrist Yair Lapid played a far more pivotal role in the formation of Netanyahu's government.
It's a small consolation, perhaps, that observers outside of Israel aren't the only ones who often can't predict what the political system there will do. Israeli experts often get their predictions badly wrong, too. A lot of that has to do with polling data that doesn't ever tell the full picture. But there is a lot more to it than that.
Western analysts often view the Israeli parliamentary system through the prism of our own very different system and turn it into a binary equation. We vote blue or we vote red. We vote for one politician or the other. Undecided voters ultimately weigh their priorities and vote their conscience.
But that's checkers, while Israeli voters and politicians must play chess. Indeed, it's entirely possible that Israeli voters don't always fully appreciate the implication of the voting game they're playing. Every vote in their multi-party system is a rather grueling gambit. If they vote for the party they truly like and support, they may not get the government they desire. For example, for those who support the peace process, a vote for the leftist Meretz party might mean fewer seats for the center-left Labor party's Isaac Herzog, who is the Israeli politician with arguably the best chance of jump-starting diplomacy. Similarly, for security hawks, a vote for rightist politician Avigdor Liberman might mean fewer seats for Netanyahu and his center-right Likud party, which is best suited to pursue a security agenda. Netanyahu himself appeared to be playing this game very late on election day Tuesday, when he posted a warning on Facebook that Likud needed to peel away allegiance from the smaller right-wing parties.
Israeli voters understand this dynamic. They are aware that their votes have consequences well beyond the simple numbers of seats each party gains. But it is impossible for them to foresee how their votes will impact the final tally. They simply cannot know what impact their vote will have on the ultimate composition of the government. It is for this reason that an estimated 10 percent of Israeli voters are undecided on the day of elections. One could argue that Israeli voters are undecided even after they cast a ballot.
The complexity of the Israeli system has often prompted pollsters to ask two key questions ahead of elections: Which party will you vote for? And who do you want to see as prime minister? The answer is not always the same. And this was apparently one of the indicators that gave Team Netanyahu hope, even as the eulogies for the prime minister began to appear in high-profile publication after publication. Indeed, fortunes can change overnight for Israeli politicians. And in this case, they did.
The Israeli system has not always been this way. The Israelis, between 1996 and 2003, experimented with a system whereby voters could cast one ballot for their prime minister and another for their party. But as my colleague Emanuele Ottolenghi explains, this encouraged ticket-splitting. "Many voters rejected Labor and Likud Knesset candidates, opting instead for smaller parties with sharper issue profiles, leaving the two big parties with less bargaining power than ever." The system created inherently unstable governments, so lawmakers reverted to the one vote system, making it somewhat easier for the bigger vote-getters to bring together the 61 out of 120 Knesset seats to form a government.
The revised system hasn't exactly made things more stable in recent years. We continue to watch governments crumble every two years—short of a full four-year term—because of intra-coalition squabbles.
But even coalition politics appears to be lost on Western observers. As polls showed that Netanyahu's numbers were flagging, and the premature schadenfreude began to build, analysts failed to note that Netanyahu could lose the battle by failing to gain the most seats but still win the war by being in a position to pull together enough right-wing coalition members from other parties for Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to assign him the task of forming a government.
Despite a herd mentality that has produced two straight elections' worth of failed analysis, few have had the integrity to admit they were wrong. Business Insider's Armin Rosen is a rare breed. As the results trickled in, he admitted on Twitter, "Man, I wrote some profoundly wrong [stuff] about the Israeli election today."
As Netanyahu sets out to build his new government—one that could just as easily include or exclude parties from the left–we are reminded there are just too many reasons not to put our trust in Israeli polls and predictions. Yet the media's familiarity with Israel's open system has bred a false sense of understanding, which is sometimes exacerbated by flawed polls. And, in the case of Netanyahu, who is roundly loathed by the American left, that lack of understanding could very easily be influenced by contempt and hope for his demise.
Editors should be cringing at what passed for news last week. Maybe a few corrections will be issued. Perhaps a few clarifications, too. But if there's takeaway for them, it is this: The biennial "Running of the Israel Experts" is dangerous. Many get gored. Few walk away without a scratch. And even fewer seem to understand very well how the Israeli electoral system works.
One of them, perhaps, is Bibi Netanyahu.