The surveys of Israeli voters are coming fast and furious, and they all pretty much say the same thing: Likud and the rightwing bloc have more seats in the Knesset than the left and/or center-left bloc. (See here, here, here, here, and here for the most recent polls.) But while the right-left division is a useful analytical tool, it might also be somewhat misleading.
First, it doesn’t capture the specific goals of the religious parties. It’s widely assumed that the religious parties are part of the political right, but many students of Israeli politics put them on a different spectrum than the secular continuum. This is because their priorities tend to be different from the left-right distinction, which is centered on foreign policy and economic differences.
Second, even assuming the outcomes the polls are suggesting come true, the historical record demonstrates how fluid Israeli politics can be. Over the years, coalition governments have been composed of all sorts of parties along all kinds of spectrums. Shas has served in coalitions led by Likud, Labor, and Kadima, while the National Religious Party has done so with Likud and Labor, and different factions now in United Torah Judaism (UTJ) have entered governments under Labor and Likud.
Third, the size of the two blocs most analysts construct out of the surveys might be too inclusive. Most polls give the “right” bloc about 65-68 seats, and the left about 52-55 seats, or thereabouts. But “right” includes Shas and UTJ. Given these parties’ greater concern with domestic social and economic issues, particularly the need to ensure resources for their respective communities, and the fact that they are not opposed in principle to serving in leftwing governments, it’s not clear they should be so firmly placed in this bloc.
At the same time, the Arab parties are classified as “left.” But no Arab party has ever served in a coalition; while they can form a blocking faction in the Knesset they cannot count toward a leftwing government.
So if Shas (10-11 seats), UTJ (5-6 seats), and the Arab parties (10-11 seats) are removed from the calculation, the results look more like this: rightwing bloc: about 50-53 mandates, leftwing bloc: about 42-45 mandates. These numbers make it harder for Netanyahu and Likud to get a clear majority in the Knesset, and if Shas’ support is in play, and the Arab parties do agree to support a leftist government from the outside, then the left’s chances of forming a coalition increase considerably. Since the peace process hasn’t been on the campaign agenda, Yisrael Beiteinu might be brought on board if other issues were dealt with beforehand, or it might even be that Likud, Labor, and whatever center-left party emerges form a national unity government.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” and there are good reasons to expect that the patterns identified by all the polls will maintain themselves down to election day. But the nature of the electoral and party systems make Israeli politics less rigid than, say, the winner-take-all and two-party system in the United States. Rethinking the polling numbers makes for some interesting estimates.