Israeli Elections: March Madness in the Middle East

It is sheer coincidence that the Israeli election and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament are both starting Tuesday, but they have some characteristics in common. For one thing, both versions of March Madness feature a bewilderingly large list of participants. Sixty-eight teams are in the NCAA tournament; twenty-six political parties are contending for seats in the Israeli parliament.

A lot of the basketball teams have no chance of winning. It would take a miracle for the North Florida Ospreys, Robert Morris Colonials, Wofford Terriers or Belmont Bruins to emerge victorious or even make it to the Final Four in Indianapolis. It would take an even bigger miracle for the Rent With Honor party, the We Are All Friends ticket or The Economic Party Chaired By The Goldstein Brothers to send a single representative to the Knesset in Jerusalem.

Sixty-eight teams are in the NCAA tournament; twenty-six political parties are contending for seats in the Israeli parliament.

There are favorites in the Israeli election, just as there are in the NCAA tournament. But as anyone who fills out the tournament bracket knows, outcomes are hard to predict. There are too many variables. Same with Tuesday’s election.

Sixty-eight teams are in the NCAA tournament; twenty-six political parties are contending for seats in the Israeli parliament.

To make an educated guess, let alone place a bet, you need to understand the rules. The NCAA is an elimination tournament; one loss and you are out, last team standing is the winner. This is more or less the way American presidential politics work, too. But Israeli rules are different.

There are 120 seats in the Parliament, all elected at the same time, nationally, on a proportional basis. After the votes are counted, the parties who have won seats (probably a dozen of the 26) begin trying to put together a majority coalition. The first one to get the endorsement of a majority of sixty one members of the Knesset is the winner.

No single party ever gets an outright majority and none will this time. Israeli polls are notoriously unreliable but they make this clear enough. At the moment, the left-center challenger, Yitzhak Herzog is leading the right-center incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu, by a narrow margin. “Herzog ahead 24 to 20” is a neat headline, but even if that it is the count on Tuesday night, it will tell you no more about the final outcome than a report that Duke is leading UCLA by six at the end of the first quarter.

To get to a coalition of sixty one requires weeks of horse-trading among the parties.

Compromises mean fragmenting power. No prime minister comes to office with a personal mandate, and certainly neither Herzog nor Netanyahu will have one.

During these negotiations, parties emit all sorts of mating calls to one another, and strange bedfellows can emerge. Still, some coalitions are more likely than others, and this favors Netanyahu. Three right-wing parties have already committed to joining him, and three others are leaning in his direction. If they all sign on, it should give the prime minister enough for a narrow coalition.

Herzog has a steeper climb. His natural allies are far fewer. But his party is itching to unseat Netanyahu, and he may be able to outbid the Likud for the support of a couple of the less ideological right-leaning groups.

The third scenario is that Netanyahu and Herzog will join forces and form a broad government, with some smaller parties along for the ride. There are places (the Obama administration is one) that portray this election as a contest between the forces of extremism (the Likud) and moderation (Herzog’s Zionist Camp) but this is wishful thinking.

On the issues that concern Obama and Kerry there is little difference between the two leaders.

On Iran, both oppose letting the ayatollahs get nukes and neither seems inclined to stop it unilaterally.

As for Palestinian statehood, Herzog is more flexible than Netanyahu, but not flexible enough to meet the bottom line demands of the Palestinians, particularly the “right of return” of Arab refugees to Israel.

This sounds complicated, and it is.

I’ll make it simpler for those who want to get a bet down before tomorrow night. If the last polls are close to accurate, the odds of Netanyahu being the next prime minister are 3:2. Herzog is 4-1.

As for the final government, I have it 3-1 for a right-center coalition led by Bibi, 6-1 for a left-center coalition headed by Herzog and 2-1 for a unity government between the Likud and the Zionist Camp.

The polls close on Tuesday at 10:00 P.M., marking the end of the voting and the start of coalition building.

I’m offering 4 to 1 that we know the winner of the NCAA tournament on April 6th before a new government is announced in Jerusalem.