The results of yesterday’s national elections in Israel rendered months of commentary utterly worthless.
Just about everyone got the Israeli election wrong: pollsters, analysts, journalists, opposition parties, and perhaps even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself believed they were watching a far different campaign than the one that was actually unfolding in front of them (in the interest of disclosure, neither of these pieces I wrote yesterday hold up very well, to put it mildly).
Weeks of polling showed that Netanyahu might have made a career-endng mistake by firing his cabinet ministers last December and triggering the coalition crisis that led to yesterday’s elections. The prevailing narrative of the election was that the left-center Zionist Union was riding a pervasive “anyone but Bibi” sentiment, so much so that the vote had virtually no positive outcome for the prime minister. This fiction that endured all the way up to the exit polls, which showed the two largest parties deadlocked.
In fact, something akin to the exact opposite was happening. Israelis voted for the Likud party in spite of a general weariness with Netanyahu, validating his view of an anxious and imperiled nation willing to settle for predictable and steady leadership. But no one noticed, and even Netanyahu’s seemingly desperate behaviour in the closing days of the race — racially divisive get-out-the-vote appeals and an apparent rejection of a two-state outcome for the peace process — suggested that even he thought he might be in trouble.
Instead, Likud went from 18 seats to 31. There were other surprising wrinkles to the election: two parties to Likud’s right lost seats at Likud’s expense. The Arab parties gained 3 seats, ultra-orthodox parties lost, the Labour Party (one constituent part of the Zionist Union) had its best showing in over a decade, and an extremist right-wing party was unexpectedly left out of the Knesset altogether.
But Netanyahu still won comfortably, and just about no one thought that would happen. As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Neri Zilber told Business Insider yesterday before results were announced, Netanyahu blew up his coalition “to mould the narrative ahead of an election and to pick the timing” of the next vote.
The gamble paid off bigger than anyone expected.
There are a few theories for why Netanyahu did so well — and why the polls got it so wrong. Michael Koplow, the director of the Israel Institute, was one of the few experts who predicted Likud would finish with the most seats (although he foresaw a one-seat win, rather than Likud’s eventual 7-seat advantage over the Zionist Union).
He correctly thought that the Zionist Union’s consistently strong polling would make it easier for Likud to cleave voters away from other right-wing parties and consolidate the rightist vote within a single party
“The late surge in the polls for Zionist Camp freaked out the right wing, and I anticipated Bayit Yehudi [a party to Likud’s right] losing votes to Likud as a result since Bibi was pushing the message that only a vote for Likud could prevent the left from coming to power and selling out the country,” he explained.
The shift happened because Netanyahu had already been successful in framing the terms of the campaign in a way that would attract votes from more marginal right-wing groups.
As Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defence of Democracy, explained to Business Insider, “Netanyahu knew he needed to to reset his coalition and put people back in line if he was going to ever govern.” That meant taming his coalition’s restive and ever threatening right flank, which meant cannibalising smaller rival parties.
This in turn required strategically tacking right and projecting strength on hot-button issues like the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program. It also required calling elections at a time when there was no obvious threat to his rule — no charismatic or broadly respected center or left-wing figure who could credibly unseat him, and no real insurgent threat from politicians even further to his right. Rightist upstarts Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Lieberman are in worse shape today than they were before the right. The left-wing candidate Isaac Herzog ran an effective campaign that could set him up for the premiership. Just not this year.
It was possible to detect the residue of this strategy’s future success even in polls that showed the Zionist Union ahead of Likud. If people were generally tired of Netanyahu, they were still supporting parties that he could easily raid for votes.
“The numbers were showing that people wanted Netanyahu to be prime minister, just not that people wanted to vote for him,” Schanzer explained. Despite what people actually told pollsters, they ended up voting in a way that preserved the right’s hold on power even if they waited until election day to break for Netanyahu himself.
It was that final break in the incumbent’s favour that so many pollsters and analysts missed.
In a conference call the day after the vote, Itamar Rabinovich, former Ambassador of Israel to the US and former president of Tel Aviv University, explained why it happened.
“The Israeli public is a concerned public,” he explained. “It looks at Gaza, it looks at Lebanon and Hezbollah, it looks at the unravelling political order in the Middle East, and it is concerned and looking for an authoritative figure to lead Israel through all of this.”
Israelis, including plenty who probably loathe him, decided that Netanyahu was the only such figure on offer. The underlying dynamics of the election favoured him all along. And one of the only people who noticed was the person who mattered the most: the man who called the elections in the first place and now has the chance to lead Israel for another four years.
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