Coronavirus Fears Are the Most Exciting Thing About Israel's Boring Third Election

There are two great unknowns as Israelis return to polling places on March 2 – voter turnout, and whether the coronavirus might have an impact

Moshe Gafni at the launch of the United Torah Judaism election launch in Jerusalem, February 12, 2020.
Oren Ben Hakun

“Third time’s a charm,” the old saying goes.

But few Israelis are finding anything charming about voting in their third national election in less than a year. Raise the topic of politics and you are likely to be greeted by eye rolls, looks of disgust, and comments from people that they are as sick of the subject as they are the political leaders vying once more for their support.

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“In a word – apathy,” replies Prof. Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, when asked to describe the atmosphere less than a week before Israelis return to the polls after lawmakers twice failed to form a governing coalition last year.

“The national mood is ‘Oh no, not again,’” Hazan says. “Israelis are tired. They don’t want to hear politicians campaigning anymore. And you can tell that even the politicians themselves don’t want to be campaigning.”

Until now, apathy, boredom and exhaustion have never been part of Israel’s political DNA. In a country where election campaigns speak of life and death issues, arguing that a leader from the opposing camp poses an existential threat, Israeli elections are normally charged and intense affairs. In the weeks before an election, the country is normally abuzz with interest and nervous energy. This time around, though, with just days to the March 2 ballot, most Israelis simply don’t want to talk politics.

Tomer Hershkovitz, a 24-year-old photographer from Tel Aviv, says that in his professional and social circles, “nobody is talking about the election.”

Election campaign posters being printed at a printing house in Rosh Ha'ayin, central Israel, February 20, 2020.
Amir Levy

Interest was high last spring in the lead-up to the first election in the cycle, he recalls. “And when the second election was called in September, it was still interesting. Repeat elections had never happened before, so it was new and felt kind of historic. Everybody was talking about how strange and unusual it was to be voting again,” he says.

But this third time, Hershkovitz says, “There’s nothing new about it at all. People are bored.”

‘Unprecedented’

Available data support the perception that interest in the upcoming election is significantly lower than either of its two predecessors. A survey released by the Israel Democracy Institute earlier this month found that 49 percent of Jewish respondents and 41 percent of Arab respondents said they were following the current campaign to a lesser extent than the previous one. Only 11 percent of Jews and 13.5 percent of Arabs said they were more interested this time around.

How will this lack of interest affect the election? Even the experts admit it is impossible to predict.

“It’s very difficult because a third national election within a single year is unprecedented – not only in Israel but internationally,” Hazan says. “Those of us who are used to going back to historical events for information find there’s very little we can learn.”

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz and Labor leader Amir Peretz at a campaign event in Tel Aviv, January 29, 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

Prof. Gideon Rahat, also a political scientist at Hebrew University and director of the Political Reform Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, agrees. “We have no way of knowing how voters turn out in a repeat third election, because it hasn’t happened before,” he says.

However, he notes that “the literature does tell us there is such a thing as voter fatigue, and voters tend to vote less when they have a lot of elections. It is part of the explanation of why voter turnout is low in some countries,” Rahat says.

That is why, he adds, “We expected to see voter fatigue and lower turnout at the second election in September. One would have expected that many voters would not show up … and we expected a decline. But Israeli voters surprised us.”

In the end, turnout was slightly higher in September’s do-over election than April’s, making it “dangerous to predict what will happen now,” Rahat explains.

Polls have remained stubbornly consistent, repeatedly showing that the vast majority of voters plan to vote for the same parties they supported in the previous two ballots.

Given this, the ability of either Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud or Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan to build a coalition of 61 lawmakers could potentially rest on a handful of votes – making voter turnout of heightened importance. Victory or defeat may depend on whether a critical mass in one party or another is disgusted or exhausted enough to stay away from the polling places next Monday.

“It will ultimately come down to: who is angrier?” Hazan hypothesizes. “Are Likud voters angry because of what is happening to Netanyahu, or are they tired of Netanyahu? Are Kahol Lavan voters motivated, saying ‘This time we can get rid of Netanyahu,’ or are they giving up?”

Hazan says that from what he has seen, Netanyahu and Likud appear to be more worried this time around, and are having trouble mobilizing their base. The party has launched a campaign ad urging Likud supporters not only to vote themselves, but to knock on the doors of Likud-supporting friends and make sure they vote as well.

A Likud poster in Jerusalem warning that without Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, "there is no Gantz government."
Ohad Zwigenberg

The ad bemoans the fact that 300,000 Likud voters stayed home last September. Had they shown up, the ad’s voiceover says, Netanyahu would have had a better chance at forming a government.

Rahat calls that claim a myth. “I don’t think 300,000 Likud voters didn’t vote,” he says. “We don’t know who those people would have voted for, had they gone to vote. In studies of nonvoters, they are usually spread among the political parties. The fact that you have lower turnout in Likud strongholds does not automatically mean the people who didn’t vote [would have voted] for Likud.” Even if they had voted Likud in the past, he notes, they may have been angry enough to vote for a different party.

Coronavirus fears

Anger isn’t uncommon among third-time voters, particularly when it comes to the subject of election costs.

“These elections are a complete waste of taxpayer money that should be going to far more important things,” says Debra Shabbes, a Ra’anana business consultant. While Shabbes is “definitely planning to vote,” she won’t know who she is voting for until the morning of Election Day.

Anyway, she half-jokes, “anything could happen until then – what if the coronavirus strikes the Knesset?”

Shabbes’ pivot to the topic of the coronavirus is no coincidence: A major contributing factor to the public’s lack of focus on the election in recent weeks has been the burgeoning international epidemic. Lead headlines on news broadcasts and in print media are increasingly dominated by the outbreak, relegating election news to further down the agenda.

Coronavirus fears could also influence turnout, albeit on a small scale. The number of quarantined Israelis required to stay home after returning from countries where the virus has spread is growing – so much so that the government recently announced special polling places are being set up for them, staffed by personnel wearing protective gear. It is questionable, though, whether those under quarantine value their vote enough to risk contracting the disease from one of their fellow quarantined citizens who used the voting booth before them.

Travelers wearing masks as they arrive at Ben-Gurion International Airport, Tel Aviv, February 2020.
Meged Gozani

At Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan warned that fake news could be disseminated regarding the dangers of the disease spreading at polling places, in efforts to suppress voting.

Compared to the menacing shadow of coronavirus, a third election may look less dramatic. But experts express deep concerns about the long-term effects these repeat elections will have on Israel’s political culture.

“The worst thing is that we’ve broken a taboo; that calling early elections frequently is now considered acceptable,” Hazan says. “When we can call elections again and again and again so easily, this changes the rules of the game.”

Until last summer, Rahat recalls, it was inconceivable that “a Knesset, right after it is elected, will ever decide to oust itself – like committing suicide.” But then the unimaginable happened. The dissolution of the Knesset last May, leading to the do-over election in September, “was like crossing the Rubicon,” Rahat says.

He is concerned by the damage being done as “the system is being put to the test again and again” – all while Netanyahu undermines faith in the media and the courts, and hints at deep state conspiracies against him. “Such a blend of elections and populism is a threat to democracy,” Rahat warns.