How Did Netanyahu Score Such a Decisive Election Victory?

The prime minister who was on course for an ignominious defeat is now being sent back to the Knesset with an even bigger majority – thanks to a brilliant end-game and his rivals' flawed campaigns.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Netanyahu campaigning in Ashkelon on Election Day, March 17, 2015.
Netanyahu campaigning in Ashkelon on Election Day, March 17, 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

For anyone who did not sleep last night, but spent the wee hours watching as television exit polls began slowly to give way to the actual results coming from the Central Election Commission, there was a surreal moment, sometime between 2 o'clock and 3 o'clock, when the floor seemed to give way under your feet.

In some ways it was very reminiscent of the same hour 19 years ago, when we realized that those who had gone to sleep with Prime Minister Shimon Peres were about to wake up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Only then, the shift was by a fraction of a decimal point. Last night, huge chunks of votes moved from column to column, as the dead heat between Likud and the Zionist Union – as surprising and near-unimaginable it had been earlier in the evening – was developing into a rout of almost landslide dimensions.

So what just happened? How has Netanyahu pulled off the greatest upset of his all-too upsetting political career?

No one in his immediate circle – and certainly none of the senior Likud figures who on Tuesday were planning their moves in a post-Bibi era – expected anything near this result. The most that any of them had dared to hope for was a closing of the gap which had opened the previous week between Zionist Union and Likud. Or had it? Which of the polls (if any) that we were inundated over the last few months can we believe now?

Let’s try and recap this rollercoaster of events and put them into some kind of perspective.

The polls weren't wrong

Everyone is talking today of “the Yom Kippur of the pollsters.” That’s true of the exit polls of the main television channels, all of which ruled that Likud and Zionist Union were in a dead heat, totally missing the six-seat lead Likud had actually won.

But the polls published last week, before the polling blackout began, which showed Likud trailing by an average of four seats, were pretty accurate. They were spot on when it came to the size of the Zionist Union and of the main blocs. Likud’s perceived weakness was probably also a clear snapshot of Netanyahu’s lack of popularity. He won this election by convincing over 200,000 voters who were planning to vote for Habayit Hayehudi, Shas, Kulanu and Yahad to change their minds in the last six days of the campaign. Last week’s polls were carried out before this shift took place.

Netanyahu ran a terrible campaign

The prime minister snatched victory at the very last moment, but for the first hundred days of the campaign, his strategy was all wrong. It was a carbon-copy of his winning campaign from the 2013 election, when one of his slogans was, “When Netanyahu talks the world listens.” It was designed to portray the prime minister as an international statesman among provincial hacks. He wouldn’t engage with the local media and won the election from within a sterile bubble.

In 2015 he thought the same tactics would work and his speech to Congress two weeks ago was the keystone. But the narrative had moved on. Long-term trends set in motion by the 2011 social protests had finally put social issues at the center of the election agenda and Netanyahu was worse than absent from that discourse; he was its bogeyman.

He compounded his mistake last month, when, in response to the damaging state comptroller’s report on the housing crisis, he tried to talk about the Iranian threat instead – insulting many financially underprivileged Likud voters who have little hope of ever owning their own apartment. Even diehard Likudniks found it hard to remain loyal to a leader who was so obviously detached from their daily concerns. Last week's polls served as the necessary shock and Netanyahu made a timely call, jettisoning the faulty strategy and going into emergency mode, giving interviews to (nearly) every outlet and scaring right-wingers out of their wits.

Herzog's missing campaign

Isaac Herzog was fighting an uphill battle from the moment he became Labor Party leader in November 2013. This election came too early for him. He still needed to work on establishing himself as a national figure, on changing the political narrative and attacking Netanyahu's record. He did quite well on all these counts, given that he only had four months between the Knesset being dissolved and Election Day. He overcame his lack of natural charisma, doggedly stuck to a socioeconomic agenda that voters related to and his criticism of Netanyahu was effective.

Two dozen seats is Labor's best result since 1999, but it wasn't enough. The votes he lacked were there for the taking in a neighboring party: Yesh Atid. The missing piece of his campaign strategy was an aggressive and focused appeal to Yesh Atid voters, highlighting Yair Lapid's total failure as finance minister in Netanyahu's government. There was an effort to do so but it was woefully late and very low-key.

I asked Herzog on Election Day why he wasn't pursuing these voters harder and he answered "we are doing it an organized and responsible way." If he had done so in the shameless and blatant way Netanyahu went after Habayit Hayehudi voters, the outcome may have been very different.

The disintegration of the left

One of the things Herzog tried to do was detoxify the struggling Labor Party by adding Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah and renaming the list Zionist Union. This had only limited success. I met many voters who said they still couldn't bring themselves to vote Labor, despite their anger at Netanyahu. But Herzog's failure is eclipsed by the near-disintegration of its left-wing ally Meretz, the leaders of which were reduced to begging voters not to forsake them and consign them to political oblivion. Meretz has succeeded in scraping over the threshold, while losing a seat or two. But the continued inability of a party that in 1992 won 12 seats and contributed massively to Yitzhak Rabin's victory to come anywhere near that achievement has gone on for too long. Meretz has failed miserably at breaking into new constituencies and has to shoulder its portion of the blame for the rightward shift of the Israeli public.

Its values may be beyond reproach, but it may be beyond redemption. The only hope for the Zionist left is in a populist movement that can sweep away the hidebound party structures and truly engage with the Israeli working class. That's a tall order and Meretz obviously cannot deliver.

Overhype of the Joint List

Every election has to have its sexy story. This time it was undoubtedly the Joint List, which attracted entire cohorts of journalists, Israeli and international. The attention was warranted, as a potential political awakening among Israel’s largest minority is a major development. But the hype blew it out of proportion.

The Joint List is not a new party but a technical alliance, ensuring that the small Israeli-Arab parties cross the electoral threshold. No one, not least the parties themselves, are certain that these radically different groups - Communists, Arab Nationalists and Islamists – will remain unified in the new Knesset.

There was never any question of them joining a coalition and the talk of them “agreeing” to be part of the bloc which could potentially thwart a Netanyahu-led majority was ridiculous – as if there was any prospect of them ever supporting Bibi. The list succeeded in boosting turnout and winning three additional seats to their joint tally from 2013, but they didn’t change the overall electoral picture in any significant way. The potential in the Joint List is a new and very necessary dialog between the Arab minority and the rest of Israeli society, but it has a very limited immediate political effect. The exaggerated hype helped Netanyahu and his allies to incite against them. It would be much more useful to see the Joint List for what it is and build on that.

The prime minister’s inexcusable foul

If there was any doubt of the need for a meaningful dialog with Israel’s Arab minority, Netanyahu’s racist call to right-wingers on Election Day to go and vote because “droves of Arabs” were descending on the polling booths, dispelled it. The prime minister tried to backpedal, explaining that “there’s nothing wrong with people voting” but foreign interests were “funneling millions” to influence the outcome. In his victory speech he promised to work “for all citizens of Israel, Jews and non-Jews.” Too late. He knew exactly what he was doing when he sent out that message and why.

Some pundits criticized Netanyahu for his “foul,” as if it was a sporting offense, but insisted that he isn’t racist. It’s immaterial what Netanyahu actually believes. What matters is how he acts. He may not have a racist bone in his body, but he cynically used a racist ploy and went on to win handily a few hours later. That is what we must remember from this dismal election.

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