The coronavirus year has been a challenging one for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – some 6,000 dead, three lockdowns that have tested the public’s patience, and a slumping economy. The Netanyahu government hasn’t been a stellar performer in the face of the crisis. Under Likud ministers, the key finance and education ministries have been doing their jobs badly, and policies have been characterized by zig-zags and suspicions of politicized decisions.
Yet, all the public opinion polls ahead of Israel’s March 23 election continue to show that voters regard Netanyahu as the candidate most suited to be prime minister. His Likud is likely to emerge with 30 mandates, the largest party by a wide margin. That is fewer than the three previous elections, when the party captured 35, 32 and 35 seats, respectively, but not a lot fewer. In any case, the Likud traditionally wins more seats than the polls predict.
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Moreover, throughout the pandemic year, the Likud has retained its strength even as voters chose to punish or abandon other parties. According to some polls, Kahol Lavan, Netanyahu’s partner in the last government, has sunk below the threshold number of votes needed to enter the next Knesset. Naftali Bennett’s Yamina was polling at 20 seats a few months ago; today it has barely half that number.
Could the answer to this political anomaly lay in economics? A survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute for TheMarker sought to answer this question by linking party support to the way voters say they have weathered the coronavirus year economically. Taken in February, it asked questions of 776 people comprising a representative sample of Israel’s adult population.
The survey found that a 47% plurality of voters said the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic would to a large or very large degree influence their vote. On the other hand, 44% said it would have little or no impact, with the rest stating that they didn’t know.
The survey found that just over half of Likud voters (50.5%) had been harmed economically by the pandemic, somewhat lower than the 54% rate than for the population as a whole, but still quite large. Moreover, a higher 22% share of Likud voters said they had been either laid off, put on unpaid leave or were forced to close their business during the pandemic, compared with 18% of the general public.
Respondents who said they support Yesh Atid – the biggest of the center-left parties and the one best positioned to lead a government without Netanyahu – reported they had suffered economically more than Likud voters. Some 62% said they had either lost a job, been put on unpaid leave or closed a business during the pandemic.
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But lost income isn’t the same for all earners. The poll showed that Likud voters earn less than supporters of Yesh Atid and parties to its left. Among Yesh Atid voters, 44% reported a monthly income of over 8,000 shekels ($2,410), the highest by party support and double the rate for Likud voters.
Among the 53% of Likud voters who reported earning less than 8,000 shekels a month, a reduction of 25% of their income during the pandemic – which 19% of them told pollsters had happened to them – would be much harder to manage than for someone earning twice that.
Prof. Tamar Hermann, who heads IDI’s Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research and conducted the survey together with Dr. Or Anabi, said that despite the poll showing that economic issues are a major factor in this year’s voting, at the end of the day voters tend to stay loyal to their parties through thick and thin.
“The numbers show that despite expectations that the politicians responsible for the crisis would be ‘punished,’ the degree of economic hurt due to the coronavirus crisis has had only a marginal electoral effect on the Israeli public,” she said.
“[Voter] preferences are determined first and foremost by the feeling of belonging to one of the political camps (among Jews) – right, center and left, or by nationality,” Hermann said.
The economic disconnect can be seen further toward the ends of the political spectrum. Supporters of the left-of-center Labor Party were split evenly between those who had experienced financial setbacks during the coronavirus year and those who had not, numbers not very different from the Likud ratio.
On the right, backers of Yamina were the least harmed economically among poll respondents during the last year, with just 30% saying they experienced a job loss or a closed business, even though party leader Bennett has attacked Netanyahu’s COVID-19 crisis management vociferously. Further to the right, on the other hand, Religious Zionism voters fared much worse economically, with the survey finding that 64% said they had suffered a setback economically, yet the party is fully in the pro-Netanyahu camp.
The electoral strength of Netanyahu and his allies comes even though the average Israeli has been hit badly in the pocket by the coronavirus crisis. Although overall economic contraction was far smaller than originally feared, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last month estimated that consumer spending in Israel plunged 11.1% in 2020, the biggest drop among member countries.
Israel’s unemployment rate peaked at 34% in April, counting for formerly unemployed and those on unpaid leave, and in January was still hovering at around 12%.
Some of Netanyahu’s polling strength has to be attributed to the hugely successful vaccine drive he has led. Indeed, TheMarker poll found that 45% of respondents said he deserved most of the credit for the rollout. That was far more than those who credited the public itself for responding so enthusiastically to the drive (26%), the health maintenance organizations that administered it (16%) or Pfizer, the U.S. drug maker who developed the vaccine (8%).
Yet the vaccine policy may not have been such a decisive factor. The number of Knesset seats the polls show Likud winning is similar to what was projected before the vaccine program got underway. That number has held steady through the chaos surrounding the international flight ban, Netanyahu’s refusal to address ultra-Orthodox resistance to COVID-19 restrictions, and his retreat from the “traffic light” system of selective lockdowns in the face of Haredi political opposition.
TheMarker poll found that a majority of Israelis blamed Netanyahu for the absence of state budgets for 2020 and 2021, a situation that has contributed to an enormous rise in the government’s fiscal deficits and debt and what critics say has been money misspent grappling with the pandemic’s effects.
Some 56% pointed the finger at the prime minister for the lack of a budget, while 25% blamed Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s junior coalition partner, whose Kahol Lavan party has been punished at the polls. Another 7% blamed Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, a Netanyahu ally, and the rest said they didn’t know.
“For better or for worse, the decision to vote for one party or another isn’t subject to a cold analysis of reality,” said Hermann. “Many people who have sharply criticized government policies or have been hurt economically by them say they’re going to vote for the party belonging to the bloc they feel they belong to, even if it’s responsible for the difficult situation we’re in.”