On the one hand, it isn't easy to imagine an all-but-ensured victorious prime minister who is unhappy: Why would Netanyahu be unhappy when his next term is safe and the next coalition is his to make? On the other hand, it isn't easy to imagine a leader of a party-in-decline for the last two months who is happy: How can Netanyahu be happy when the party of his dreams, the great merged Likud-Beitenu is, well, not feeling well and bleeding mandates?
This week's graph of our Israel Poll Trend tracker is a little bit different to what we have most weeks. In addition to the "blocs" – the right-religious and the center-left – Prof. Camil Fuchs added to the graph the trendline for the Likud-Beitenu Party. You can see it before the merger (that is, the sum of mandates for the two parties), and after the merger. You can see why Netanyahu should not be as happy as one might expect the next prime minister to be. Take a look at the graph, followed by more comments:
We usually plot on our graphs only the two indices of the two blocs, as they are computed from the polls conducted during the respective periods (How the indices are plotted? see more details at the bottom of the post). In the last several weeks, despite the intra-bloc excitements and fluctuations in support for the various parties, the inter-bloc indices remained remarkably stable. In fact, they are quite boring: in the last three weeks the inter-blocs predicted spread remained almost exactly the same - at 16 mandates: 68 for the Likud-Right-Religious bloc and 52 for the Center-Left bloc.
Thus, in addition to the blocs’ indices, we decided to focus today on the fluctuations of the support for the two merged parties that currently form the prime minister’s Knesset list: the Likud and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. As you can see in the graph, we've tracked the two parties both before the October 25 merger and after.
Was the merger a success or a flop?
As you can see in the graph, until the merger, for most of the time we've been tracking, the support for the two parties was equivalent to 43-45 mandates. Just before the merger the index dropped slightly to 41. However, an index of 41 was also observed previously, so it might have been a random fluctuation.
But after the merger there was no more random fluctuation, but a real decline: The index for the Likud-Beiteinu dropped and is permanently under 40 mandates - and has now reached 35. Some of the polls included in this week's index predict just 34 or even 33 for the merged party.
So why did such shrewd politicians as Netanyahu and Lieberman decide on the merger? And, more importantly, was this a chronicle of a foretold decline? Well, it was and it is. The reason is simple: The number of voters who did not support either one of the two parties, but would gladly support the merged party was likely to be tiny if not nil. On the other hand, it was quite clear beforehand that among the supporters of each individual party there would be a number of voters unhappy with supporting the other party – and therefore reluctant to support a merged party that includes the component not to their liking. This is the case with religious supporters of Likud who don’t like Lieberman’s agenda (among others) on civil marriage, and also the case of Russian immigrants who supported Lieberman and feel that some issues of importance for them are now going to be ignored because of the merger.
So, if this was clear, why did such shrewd politicians as Netanyahu and Lieberman do it? Some pundits argue that the main issue was Netanyahu's insistence on chairing the largest party. True, Likud was already the largest party at the time of the merger, but there were a lot of rumors about possibilities of mergers among the parties of the Center-Left bloc, and Netanyahu wanted an insurance policy against such a development. And as for Lieberman, the likely explanation for his decision is that as a marathon runner, he is already thinking about the post-Netanyahu days, and wants to position himself as the future leader of the main party of the bloc – the Likud.
These are reasonable explanations, but the truth is that we don't know for sure what the motivation was behind the decision. What we do know is that the merged party was not a good deal, politically speaking. It might have been though a better deal for the bloc – take a second look at the graph and see for yourself: the date of the merger isn't only the beginning of the Likud-Beiteinu decline, it is also the date on which the bloc stabilized itself in the upper 60s. Before the merger, the blocs were closer – not close, but closer. After the merger, the Right-Religious bloc jumped from the previously projected 64-65 mandates to the current 68 mandates. The Center-Left bloc declined respectively.
This is a little strange: how can the main party of the bloc lose while the bloc is gaining? A reasonable explanation would put the merger as the watershed political event of this campaign. When Netanyahu and Lieberman announced their joint-venture, the lines were drawn, and the voters could finally make a decision – right or left. Evidently, more voters fluctuated rightward, but not to the merged party. They chose Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home) over Likud-Beiteinu, thus making the intra-battle among right-wing parties no less interesting the shameless intra-battle of the Center-Left.