Israeli election 2015: six stand-outs

Following a typically lively 14-week campaign, Israelis went to the polls on 17 March. Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will almost certainly remain in that post, most probably forming a right-wing/religious coalition.

Netanyahu  outperformed polls

In the last opinion polls published before the election, Netanyahu’s centre-right Likud party was trailing its major challenger, the centre-left Zionist Union, by an average of four seats. While the odds remained stacked against them, for the first time since 1999 the centre-left was thought to have a chance (albeit an outside one) of winning government.

On election night, however, Likud won 30 seats compared to the Zionist Union’s 24. Why the discrepancy? The answer partly relates to the complexities of the Israeli electoral system and the unreliability of opinion polls, and partly to a late-campaign surge to Likud. Publishing polls in the last days of campaigning is prohibited in Israel, meaning last-minute shifts in voting intentions can be missed.

Most of the movement was within the right-wing bloc

In terms of ideological groupings, the election results replicate opinion poll results to within a couple of seats. The main movement was within the right-wing bloc—Likud essentially gained seats from Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Considering Likud’s higher-than-expected number of seats, it appears right-wing voters ‘came home’ to Likud in the last days of the campaign, voting strategically to increase the bulk of Likud’s seats and its chance of leading government. The table below compares ideological blocs in the previous Knesset with pre-election opinion polls and the actual results.


Right wing

Left wing Centre Ultra-Orthodox Arab parties

Yirsrael Beiteinu
Jewish Home

Zionist Union (Labor and Hatnuah)
Yesh Atid
United Torah Judaism
Joint list
Previous Knesset 43 27 21 (includes Kadima) 18 11
Opinion poll averages (at 13 March) 42 30 21

2015 election results 44 29 21 13 13

[Table created by the Parliamentary Library.]

The chances of a centre-left government were exaggerated

On 16 March Reuters ran the headline ‘The era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [is] coming to an end’. Other headlines also raised the prospect of a Netanyahu defeat.

Other commentators pointed out that even if the Zionist Union won slightly more seats than Likud, it would struggle to form and maintain a coalition. In the most favourable polls for the centre-left, they would have needed to convince parties of opposing ideological outlooks to come together in government. Despite the polls, Netanyahu entered the last days of campaigning with a distinct advantage in terms of the predicted make-up of the Knesset.

The table below compares a potential Netanyahu-led coalition projected in opinion polls with the actual results. The size of the coalition did not really change—just the size of the Likud party within it.


Potential coalition

Anti-Netanyahu bloc
Jewish Home
Yisrael Beiteinu
United Torah Judaism
Zionist Union
Joint (Arab) List
Yesh Atid
Opinion poll averages (16 March)


Provisional election results 67 53

[Table created by the Parliamentary Library.]

The exit polls were inaccurate

In the previous 2009 and 2013 elections, exit polls published immediately after the closure of polling proved fairly accurate. In 2015, exit polls estimated 27–28 seats for Likud and 26–27 seats for the Zionist Union. A tie would have advantaged Likud anyway, but given the money and time spent on exit polls, and given the confidence put in them, their inaccuracy proved to be the biggest election day surprise.

Pollsters have given a number of explanations for the failure of the exit polls. A possible cause was the high number of Israelis refusing to participate in the exits polls—reportedly as many as 20 per cent. Professor Camil Fuchs, who managed one of the exit polls, speculated that ‘perhaps some of the Likud voters refused [to participate in the exit polls] because of their perception that the media is leftist’. It was also suggested that exit interviews may have missed a last minute Likud surge because they ceased early at 8:30pm (voting closed at 10pm) to have results ready for 10pm news bulletins. Others argue that there may be more serious flaws in exit poll methodology.

Netanyahu’s late-campaign rhetoric on Palestinian statehood

On election eve Netanyahu told an Israeli television station:

I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to radical Islam against the state of Israel… Anyone who ignores this is sticking his head in the sand.

This appeared to be a renunciation of a landmark speech Netanyahu gave in June 2009 which outlined his vision of a demilitarised Palestinian state.

In a post-election interview with US media, Netanyahu clarified his remarks:

I haven't changed my policy…What has changed is the reality. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], the Palestinian leader, refuses to recognise the Jewish state, has made a pact with Hamas that calls for destruction of Jewish state.  And every territory that is vacated in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces.

…We want that [reality] to change, so we can realize a vision of real, sustained real peace.  And I don't want a one-state solution.  I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that circumstances have to change.

The Obama Administration publicly stated that it no longer believes Netanyahu is interested in the two-state solution. Immediately after the election the White House Press Secretary stated that in light of Netanyahu’s comments during the campaign, ‘the United States will evaluate our approach to the situation moving forward’. This suggests the US might be more open to Palestinian approaches at the United Nations.

Following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s clarification, President Obama told Huffington Post:

I indicated to [Netanyahu] that given his statements prior to the election, it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.

…from our point of view, the status quo is unsustainable. And that while taking into complete account Israel's security, we can't just in perpetuity maintain the status quo, expand settlements. That's not a recipe for stability in the region.

…we take him at his word when he said that it wouldn't happen during his prime ministership, and so that's why we've got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don't see a chaotic situation in the region.

A widening rift in US-Israel relations is predicted in the near term.

More Arab-Israelis; less ultra-Orthodox

The major change in ideological blocs (compared to the previous Knesset) saw a loss by ultra-Orthodox parties of five seats and a two-seat increase for Arab-Israeli-dominated political parties.

For the ultra-Orthodox, a split in the Shas party meant it lost votes to the Yachad party, (which did not reach the electoral threshold) and saw a decrease in seats from 11 to seven. The next Knesset will have the least number of representatives from ultra-Orthodox parties since the mid-1990s.

For the Arab-Israeli parties, winning 13 seats is a considerable achievement. In response to the raising of the electoral threshold to 3.25 per cent in 2014, many of the diverse parties representing the Arab community of Israel—communist, moderate Islamist, pan-Arab—united as the ‘Joint List’ and fought as a single party for the first time. Turnout among Arab-Israeli citizens was higher than in previous elections, and the Joint List looks set to be the third-largest faction in the Knesset.


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