The Six Big Surprises of the 2015 Israeli Election

Surprises were inevitable in this year's election - but nobody could have predicted to what extent. Israelis awoke the morning after the election either feeling as if an overnight miracle had occurred - or as if their worst nightmare had come true.

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Isaac Herzog and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Isaac Herzog and Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Reuters, AFP

1. The scale of Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory

Perhaps the only person who wasn’t truly surprised by his indisputable triumph is Benjamin Netanyahu himself. No matter how dire the polls were, how unrelenting the scandals and the accusations that he was cut off from the electorate, Netanyahu kept insisting that he had broad support in the Israeli public and a majority wanted him as their prime minister. It was dismissed as bluster - blindness to the bashing he was taking from all sides. In the end, it seems he knew something the pundits and the pollsters were missing, and proved the “Anyone but Bibi” strategy to be a dreadful miscalculation. His campaign managed to make the low expectations work in his favor. As polls showed his Zionist Union rivals surging, it smacked Likud’s base out of complacency and brought them back home if they were flirting with rival parties. He cried out “Save me!” and voters responded in numbers that nobody foresaw.

2. The crippling of Naftali Bennett and the Habayit Hayehudi party

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett was supposed to be the bright light and the crown prince of right-wing leadership. He saw himself as his former boss Netanyahu’s natural successor and he was clearly chomping at the bit for the day to come when he could challenge him. One can’t forget that the stated reason that Netanyahu called the elections in the first place was to strengthen his own hand, not only against Yair Lapid, but against Bennett too. Mission accomplished. Bennett will take his place in the next Netanyahu government, but in a far, far weaker position, losing a full third of his representation in the Knesset and with it, much of his bargaining power at coalition-building time.

3. The devastation of Meretz

No one expected Meretz to do well in the election - but few expected it when the Knesset was dissolved to be fighting for its very survival, praying for enough seats to scrape over the electoral threshold and be saved from political obscurity. But the momentum that grew behind the Zionist Union list on its right and the Joint (Arab) List on its left proved devastating, and its negative campaign strategy of attacking Herzog and the ZU didn’t help. The party’s leader, Zehava Galon, has taken responsibility for her failure and announced that she will resign as party chairwoman, as the disappointing results became clear. Whoever succeeds her will have their work cut out for them, leading a party synonymous with leftism at a time when “left” has become a dirty word in mainstream Israel.

4. The unbreakability of Avigdor Lieberman

The election campaign started out badly for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party and seemed to go from bad to worse. His leadership was inextricably mired in a corruption scandal that forced much of its leadership out of politics and into police interrogation rooms. He was out of political practice, having merged his party with the Likud in the 2013 elections because of his own legal woes. As foreign minister, he was in charge of international relations at a time when more of the world than ever was turning against Israel and recognizing a Palestinian state. Russian immigrants to Israel were believed to be moving away from sectoral voting. That, and the bizarre hard-line campaign he put together added up to widespread preparation of Lieberman’s political obituary on the eve of the election. Yes, the six-seat showing in the elections is a big fall from the 15 seats Yisrael Beitenu party held after the 2009 elections. But it will keep Lieberman in the cabinet and it is a sign that he can’t be counted out of Israel’s political future. He came close to matching Naftali Bennett, who had overtaken him as the right-wing Netanyahu alternative in public perception - and held his own alongside trendier rising stars like Yair Lapid and Moshe Kahlon. Early news reports that he is shooting for the job of defense minister show that he is feeling powerful.

5. The disappearance of Eli Yishai

The narrative of the split between the two rival leaders of the Shas party always showed Arye Dery holding the advantage, but the fact that Yishai’s effort at forming a new party has utterly shut him out of the Knesset and left the career politician without a job is still big news. The jokes regarding his fate have been flying across social media - tweets like “I just got a LinkedIn request from Eli Yishai” or “Eli Yishai is learning how to say “would you like fries with that” in Hebrew. The defeat of his hard-right party is the only small consolation in the election results for those who fear for the future of Israeli democracy - if his party entered the Knesset, it would have marked the return of Kahanism in the form of Baruch Marzel, whose far-right Otzma faction merged with Yishai to form the party Yahad. But surely Yishai’s arch-rival Arye Deri is far more than consoled - he must be thrilled to rule the roost as the uncontested owner of the legacy of Shas and the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

6. The utter failure of the exit polls

No polling system is perfect - and no one expected the Israeli election night exit polls to be completely accurate - but the difference between the exit polls and the actual results was overwhelming. Debates are already raging as to whether the entire polling apparatus was off base and that those held the week before the election showing a Zionist Union surge were inaccurate - or whether the earlier polls reflected reality and the Likud was just tremendously successful in beating back that advance.

But there is little dispute that the exit polls on the night of the elections got it wrong in a major way. The difference in the numbers that Israelis saw before they went to sleep Tuesday night and those that surprised them when they woke up the next morning had them - depending on their political sympathies - feeling as if an overnight miracle had occurred or as if their worst nightmare had come true.

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