The recent election in Israel was interesting because for the first time since 1999 the identity of the winner was revealed the morning after the election. For the past sixteen years, the winner’s identity was already known prior to the elections. This time, there was tension in the air. Possible winds of change. The same issues that haunted Netanyahu in the 1999 elections, after his first term as prime minister, returned to haunt him: scandals, corruption allegations, poor human relationships, too many changes in personnel in his office, poor relationships with his coalition partners, and poor policy making that have left many of Israel’s problems (most prominently housing, education and health) not addressed.
For a lengthy period of time, the polls had forecast a very close election between Likud and the Zionist Union. None of the polls, including last minute exit polls, predicted a clear victory for the Likud. Even the 10pm exit polls on the day of elections failed to predict the final results. When I fell asleep on 18 March a little after midnight, Likud had 24 seats. Six hours later, at 06:30 in the morning, Likud had 30 seats. A resounding victory.
There are several explanations for the pollsters’ failure. First, people in the samples did not reveal their true intentions. Second, about 15-20% of the public said that they were undecided. At the end of the day, many of them opted Likud. Third, Netanyahu ran a brilliant fear-mongering campaign the last few days before the elections to bring back traditional Likud voters. It was quite clear to many voters that the kingmaker in this election, Moshe Kahlon, a popular former Likud minister who broke away to establish a new centrist party appropriately named “Kulanu” (“All of Us”) may go either way, with Likud or with the Zionist Union, depending on who would win more votes, and what offers would be put on the table. Thus voters on the right who were considering voting for smaller parties decided to cast their vote for Likud so that Netanyahu would be called upon by the President to form a coalition.
Netanyahu’s fear campaign proved to be effective. He evoked fears regarding Iran, the Palestinians and Hamas, which is like ISIS to many Israelis. Netanyahu evoked fears with regard to the Arab world at large and those on the Left, accusing them of not being nationalistic, patriotic, nor Zionist. Netanyahu suggested that the American president is no friend of Israel.
Israelis were told to fear everyone. Their savior was Netanyahu.
Apparently there are many fearful people in Israel who would rather have the prime minister they know than risk electing a new leader.
Once again it was abundantly clear that there is a difference between being a leader of a party, even a major party, and being a leader of the country. Isaac Herzog, leader of the Zionist Union, did not convince enough voters that he had the necessary qualities to lead Israel.
Herzog certainly lacks what Netanyahu has in abundance: a relentless zeal to win. Netanyahu has ‘killer instincts’ as to how to win elections, and to do whatever it takes to achieve this. Herzog lacks this.
The Zionist Union campaign should be highlighted as a lesson in “How Not to Run a Campaign.” It was unfocused, unclear, diffused and unconvincing. It spoke of a third assistant in kindergartens. Teachers do need more help, but this is not a slogan that wins elections. All elections that I can recall were won on the security ticket: who will provide Israel with better security. Israelis are preoccupied with security concerns. Sixty-seven years after the establishment of Israel, its borders are still disputed, enemies still wish to destroy it, and the fear of terrorism is valid. Many Israelis still question how long Israel will continue to exist. Such a question is not asked in the Netherlands, Denmark or even Luxemburg.
People vote for someone because of one of three reasons or a combination thereof:
- That person has leadership qualities. Sometimes the mere perception of leadership is enough to make people vote for that person.
- Voters identify with the leader because he/she has certain qualities with which they can identify. Maybe s/he looks like them, maybe they feel they can go for a drink, or dinner, with that person and enjoy it; maybe they feel connection with the leader.
- A small minority vote for a particular ideology and political platform. However, most people do not even know what the party’s political platform is. Some parties hide their platforms. Elections are a show. Elections are more about perception than content.
After the elections, people explained the result by pointing to the “ethnic devil” or “ethnic divide” in Israel. I do think that such an Ashkenazi (Jews whose family background is from Europe and America) / Middle Eastern (Jews whose origin is the Middle East) divide exists, except on a small burner. Middle Easterners are not discriminated against today in Israeli society. True, Middle Easterners occupy the lower strata of Israeli society in greater numbers because of their impoverished starting point, but I do not think that they are officially excluded from power positions. With time, more and more power positions will be in Middle Eastern hands.
Likud is more appealing to Middle Easterners because of its nationalistic, exclusionary agenda which accentuates “Jews first.” A strong hand security agenda is to their liking. Non-Likud leaders need to try harder to appeal to them, finding a way to their hearts and minds, making a compelling case with which they can identify.
The Zionist Union failed to do this. Also, the Zionist Union is carrying the unappealing, discriminatory MAPAI legacy. Israel’s founding party, led by the first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, did discriminate against Middle Easterners. For many Middle Easterners, to “cross the road” to the non-Likud camp is an emotional decision. Strong, compelling reasons are needed to convince them to do so. It will be easier for the next generation if and when they realise that the Likud is not a social justice party.
Put Kahlon in the Labour leadership and see what will happen. Is this a possibility? Stranger things have happened in Israeli politics. Tzipi Livni, the deputy leader of the Zionist Union, grew up in a revisionist home.
The Joint List of Arab parties won 13 seats, making it the third-largest parliamentary faction. Its three component parties previously had 11. This is a considerable political force that can play a significant role for better, or for worse. I hope the new Arab party will play a constructive role in Israeli politics.
The turnout was near 72 percent, four percentage points higher than in 2013, which analysts attributed to the close contest between the Likud and the Zionist Union.
Just 26 months after Israel’s last election, Netanyahu reconfirmed his leadership and now can safely sail away to further his agenda and ideology. Netanyahu declared that his Bar-Ilan speech (June 14, 2009), in which he, for the first time, endorsed the idea of a two-state solution, is no longer valid, and that there won’t be a Palestinian state as long as he is in office.
I tend to believe him.
What does this mean?
It means there won’t be peace. It means growing frustration among the Palestinians who are still living under occupation. It means violence. It means more bloodshed. It means more insecurity. It means more terror.
It also means growing isolation for Israel in the international community. It means “Am Levado Ishkon” (a Hebrew saying that means “People who reside alone”); it means more power to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement; it means a growing stature of Israel as the world pariah.
It also means growing tensions between Israel and the White House. Maybe Israel won’t be able to count on the USA to consistently stand on its side in crucial UN decisions and in international meetings.
It means growing dissatisfaction with Israel in various European organizations.
It means growing tensions with Turkey and Egypt, two countries that Israel needs on its side in regional politics.
Netanyahu achieved his goal – he was elected prime minister. On the way, he has damaged Israel’s relationships with the USA; he told the Palestinians in very clear words that there is no point negotiating with him, thus they should seek other ways to move forward; he polarized Israeli society even more than it already is; he expressed his belief that the Israeli Palestinians are not to be trusted. Netanyahu has made the elections an end in itself. He achieved the end. Now what?
The horizons are not bright. Democracy comes with a price. The last elections were crucial for Israel’s destiny. Israel voted right. This was wrong.
The author thanks Sam Lehman-Wilzig for his thoughtful remarks.