This March Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will mark 11 years in the Prime Minister’s Office. Netanyahu’s recent legal troubles have raised the usual question of who will lead Israel in the post-Netanyahu era. The key difference is that for the first time the polling companies have decided to move from polling various Anti-Netanyahu Scenario Polls to surveying Post-Netanyahu Scenario Polls. This is a significant shift that has provided a glimpse into what might happen when Netanyahu leaves the political stage.
On August 9, 1974 the United States President Richard Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford took over the office of the Presidency that very day. In contrast, following months and some would even say years of controversy over a number of legal troubles, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his resignation on July 30, 2008. Olmert remained in office until Netanyahu formed a government on March 31, 2009, over 8 months after announcing his resignation.
It is a matter of debate whether Netanyahu can weather this storm. However, over the last three terms every analysis piece written predicting Netanyahu’s impending downfall have proven to be wrong. He has always found a way to overcome his legal troubles, such as “Bar-on/Hebron” and I expect that he will find his way out of this one, too. Even if something does come out of the current legal cases, it could take months, if not years, before he actually steps down.
The reality of the 2017-2018 State Budget is that we probably won’t have an election in the next two years unless Netanyahu is forced to resign. You cannot learn everything from polls and things are always subject to change. However, it is a mistake to think they are not important because they show us the trend of public opinion. Polls are even more useful if we know how to use them correctly, by inserting them into the formula of the 3-phase-process, the road that leads to the Prime Minister’s Office. The undecided factors ahead of the next election remain, whenever that turns out to be. The key players and influencers of the 20th Knesset are among Netanyahu’s potential successors. There are various alliances, mergers and splits that are possible before that happens. An even bigger variable is that current parties will look different if they are led by a different leader into the next elections.
Israelis used to vote ideologically for political parties. This changed during the brief period of the direct election system that started in 1996. During this period Israeli citizens voted for the Prime Minister directly and the Knesset separately. The direct election system led to the personalization of choosing a Prime Minister because the candidate’s name was on the ballot. It also led to the collapse of the large parties because Israelis split their ballot and voted for medium and smaller parties to represent them in the Knesset. The return to a single ballot in 2003 did not change the personalization process, it actually enhanced it. Almost every party decided to highlight their leader at the expense of the party.
Most analysts will tell you that Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Kahlon’s Kulanu and Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu would completely collapse without their leaders and end up under the threshold. Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi, Deri’s Shas and Gal-On’s Meretz would most likely see a significant decline in seats without their leaders, and the parties would hover around the threshold. Most analysts will tell you that the only exceptions to the rule are the Likud, Zionist Union, UTJ and the Joint List. They say that these four lists have a built-in audience that will vote for these parties, regardless of their leader. I am not going to challenge that theory’s assumption on UTJ or the Joint List as long as they remain united. However, I think it is worth challenging the theory that Likud and Labor are immune to a historic collapse and that voters will vote for those parties automatically.
Labor re-branded as the Zionist Union because of bad poll numbers. The new name and the merger with Livni gave Labor new life and the much needed momentum that enabled them to gain a combined three seats in the last election. Since that point Labor has lost its momentum to Lapid. The Zionist Union’s best showing lately is in the Panels scenario poll where the list wins 15 seats with Gabi Ashkenazi as leader. That scenario is no longer possible because Ashkenazi missed the membership deadline. The situation in the party is so bad that the leading candidate, Yacimovich, is considering running for another position entirely. Other Labor MKs are considering a run for Labor Leader just to increase their public profile in hopes that they make the top ten. It is very possible, as some polls indicate, that the #10 spot in the Zionist Union is no longer a realistic spot.
Netanyahu has been the only party leader Likud has known since the formation of Kadima. It is not clear what happens after Netanyahu leaves the Likud. It is possible that the Likud collapses, and even if the scenario is less likely than Labor’s collapse, it is still possible. The probable Post-Netanyahu candidates on the right are Bennett, Liberman, Kahlon, Saar, and Yaalon. They are all former Netanyahu allies. They have an important thing in common – none of them are current Likud MKs. According to the polls the current crop of Likud MKs include a less attractive crop of candidates – Erdan, Katz and Edelstein. What that trio have going for them is that they are in Likud, the largest party, the party of the current Prime Minister. Is it possible that Likud is at risk of falling back to its 12-seat showing of 2006? In this age of personalization, it is worth asking what happens if the Israeli voter decides to shop elsewhere. The answer and new conclusion that I have come to after reviewing recent data is that when it comes specifically to Post-Netanyahu polling, looking at the top personalities is now more important than looking at the top parties.
Netanyahu’s legal troubles have led to Post-Netanyahu scenario polls for the first time. The results have led me to a number of interesting observations. The first observation is not much of a shock. Yair Lapid is the candidate of choice for the center-left-bloc for the next election. In ten of the last twelve polls the largest party in the Knesset has been Yesh Atid. Lapid has opened up a three-seat-gap over Netanyahu in the Knesset Jeremy Polling Average – 26.3 seats to 23.3 seats. Ever since Herzog’s failed attempt to enter Netanyahu’s coalition, it has been clear that Lapid is the candidate with more public support compared to Herzog. Lapid’s problem has consistently been that whatever he gains is only at the expense of Herzog. That is not sufficient enough for Lapid to form a coalition. A key finding in the Panels Poll is that if Netanyahu resigns and announces elections, 11% of right-wing voters chose Lapid as the most worthy to serve as Prime Minister. Lapid finished in second place overall with those 11% of right-wingers that chose him over Saar, Erdan, Katz, Yaalon and others. This is significant because Lapid’s starting point is in the double-digits, and he can try to increase that number when the Likud options consolidate around one candidate.
Who will the candidate on the right be? The popular answers are Erdan, Katz, Edelstein and other Likud Ministers. Other answers include candidates waiting on the sidelines like Saar and Yaalon. However, the data show us that these candidates, especially the current Likud Ministers, are just not as popular as Bennett among the right wing public. It is time we ask ourselves as analysts why we think Ministers such as Erdan or Katz are Prime Minister candidates simply based on the fact that they are Likud MKs when the data suggest otherwise. If Lapid can eclipse Labor and emerge as the candidate of the center-left, perhaps a non-Likud candidate can eclipse the Likud and emerge as the candidate of the right. Just as it is difficult to imagine Avi Gabai leading Labor to a highest showing in the center-left camp, perhaps it will be equally as difficult to imagine Yisrael Katz leading Likud to the highest showing in the right camp. It is time to explore what a possible path could look like for the leading right wing candidate in the personality polls.
Naftali Bennett’s popularity has gradually increased over the course of the term according to the polls. The comprehensive poll marking the one-year election anniversary on March 18, 2016, that surveyed various matchups found that Lapid and Bennett were the closest to Netanyahu. The current wave of Post-Netanyahu polling has produced intriguing results. In a Channel 2 poll that asked who should replace Netanyahu if he needs to resign from his position it was Bennett that finished in first place out of the list of current ministers. When asked who should be Prime Minister if elections are held, the top two answers were Lapid and Bennett. A Jerusalem Post poll found identical results that Bennett was the preferred choice of both Bayit Yehudi and Likud voters for Prime Minister. The latest Maariv Poll is the third poll in a row this month to place Lapid and Bennett as the top two Prime Minister candidates.
The most significant part of the latest poll is the scenario poll of a Bennett-led-Likud. In this scenario Bennett’s Likud wins 29 seats and is able to form a coalition of 64 MKs with the current coalition partners. This is the first public poll that actually illustrates a clear path to the Prime Minister’s Office for Bennett. The results are particularly interesting because the Netanyahu-led-Likud received 23 seats in this poll. That means that Bennett gives Likud six additional seats compared to Netanyahu. This proves the theory that Likud voters would welcome Bennett and his positions to the Likud in a Post-Netanyahu world. This shouldn’t be a surprise since Bennett and his ally Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s minister approval ratings have been high among Likud voters. Comparing this scenario poll to the other scenario polls raises another discovery- that Bennett might be the candidate that gives the right the best chance to win.
Of course Bennett is not in the Likud, he is the leader of the Bayit Yehudi. The lesson here is that perhaps it is time we start to give more weight to the personality-based polls. As the current trend of personalization continues, voters care more about voting for the person at the head of the party than the name of the party. It is very possible that voters will vote for Bennett, regardless of his party colors. It is clear based on the data that regardless of Bennett’s current vehicle it is his name that has emerged as the preferred leader of the right in the Post-Netanyahu era.
In 2013 it appeared that the new politics of Lapid and Bennett would influence the Netanyahu era. Now the data suggest that the new politics of the Post-Netanyahu era, whenever that is, will be a showdown between Lapid and Bennett.