With Israel's national election just five days off, it's worth remembering two principles of politics here: First, Israel polls do have more predictive power than tea leaves, but not enough to inspire confidence. Second, it's definitely not over when the fat lady sings. The vote tally is only the end of the first act. The second act is putting together a ruling coalition; the third is holding it together in order to rule.
Since the beginning of the campaign in October, Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially been the sole candidate for prime minister, certain to defeat the fractured parties of the center- left and to return to power. Even now, it would take a freak set of conditions, a perfect electoral storm, for him to lose. But his margin of victory will affect how much power he actually has, how dependent he is on rivals even further to the right than he is, and how he responds to international pressures. Here the picture is murkier.
Israeli pollsters ask voters which party they plan to vote for. Right now, that means a choice between 11 parties fairly certain to make it into the Knesset, three more that might get in, and small parties that probably don't stand a chance. Normally the leader of the party with the most votes becomes prime minister - but not always. Netanyahu came in second last time, in the 2009 election. What really determines who forms the government is which half of the political spectrum wins a majority. If the parties of the right win 61 or more out of 120 seats in parliament, the head of the largest party on the right is virtually certain to become prime minister. If the parties of the center and left - including those who represent the Arab minority - get a majority, the country's next leader will come from that side. And a 60-60 tie is possible. It happened in 1984, and for the next four years it wasn't terribly clear who was in charge.
Over the last week, polls have shown the right winning between 64 and 70 seats. Even if you write off the top figure as an outlier, the numbers look good for Netanyahu and frightening to anyone who agrees with Barack Obama's reported refrain that Netanyahu doesn't know what Israel's interests are, that he is leading his country to isolation and disaster.
The joint slate of Netanyahu's Likud and Avigdor Lieberman's hard-right Israel Is Our Home party is predicted to win between 33 and 38 seats. These numbers are actually bad news for the incumbent: The two parties have a total of 42 members in the present parliament. Netanyahu has run a campaign based on his own inevitability, while avoiding any substance about peace, Palestinians, territory or economics. The Likud has not announced a platform; doing so would require it to say whether or not it stands by Netanyahu's 2009 declaration that he'd accept a Palestinian state. The alliance with Lieberman was supposed to guarantee Netanyahu's dominance. Yet if the polls are accurate, the joint list is equal to much less than the sum of its parts.
The polls, though, have issues. Pollsters admit that they don't have enough cell phone numbers in their lists, and that cell phone users are less likely to answer. Soldiers and students are particularly hard to reach. Missing them means a poor count of first-time voters, known for sudden shifts and for picking small, sometimes obscure parties.
This leads us to another problem: A party needs to win 2 percent of the total vote to get into parliament. If a poll shows it just passing that threshold, but the statistical margin of error is 3 percent, no one really knows whether the party will get in or vanish. If the far-right Power For Israel party comes in just above the threshold and the centrist Kadima falls just below, the right's majority grows. If the opposite happens, the left does better than the polls are showing.
What's more, when a poll reaches someone who hasn't decided between two parties on the right, she will be counted as undecided - even though she's sure to vote for someone on the right. Actually, veteran pollster Mina Zemach's Dahaf Institute reported last Friday that 18 percent of voters are undecided - but more are dithering between parties of the left than between parties of the right. This makes sense, because the left is so fragmented. Ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni's new slate - generically named The Movement - focuses entirely on renewing peace negotiations. Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich is running against Netanyahu's cutthroat economic policy, but she acts as if the Palestinians and peace aren't issues for Israel. Traditional voters of the left are angry that ego kept the two from joining forces. Many people will make up their minds standing in the voting booth. Meanwhile, polls may be undercounting the center and left.
To all this, add another wild card: that report of Obama's despair with Netanyahu. In Israel, that story dominated front pages and talk radio. The widespread assumption is that the president quite deliberately placed the leak to Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg. It could be the January Surprise of 2013 - or be too late and too little to shift votes.
So on Wednesday, with the votes counted, Netanyahu may turn out to have defeated not only the center-left but the pollsters. The right could dominate parliament and the Likud could dominate the right. Netanyahu will have his choice of coalition partners, and will ignore them as he makes occasional moderate statements for foreign consumption and keeps building settlements.
Yet in another, equally possible scenario, the right could have a thin majority, and the Likud might barely be larger than Labor or Jewish Home, the religious party challenging Netanyahu from the right.
In that situation, Netanyahu will struggle to build a majority in parliament. He is most likely to depend on the other parties of the right to build a narrow coalition. As a leader, he'll be trapped between international pressure and ideologues who will bolt at the first lip service to realism. In an extreme case, he could soon have to return to the voters. That is, once the fat lady sings in Hebrew, a second act of deadlock and a third act of instability offer the best chance for a hopeful ending.
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