Israeli Election Breakdown: Where Netanyahu Got a Quarter of a Million Votes From

Six takeaways from the Israeli election results, including the so-called ‘right-wing surge’ and the collapse of the Labor-Meretz vote

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A Likud supporter wearing a Benjamin Netanyahu mask during a Likud celebration event on Election Night, March 2, 2020.
A Likud supporter wearing a Benjamin Netanyahu mask during a Likud celebration event on Election Night, March 2, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

With all the votes in Monday’s election now counted, it is time to take a deep dive into figures published by the Central Elections Committee and see who the big winners (and losers) were. Here are six key takeaways, based on figures published on Thursday evening...

1. Kahanists’ loss, Likud’s gain

Bibi limps to election 'victory.' But he didn't winCredit: Haaretz Weekly Podcast

A few hours after the exit polls were published on Monday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed to declare victory. But three days on, after the actual votes were counted, it is clear this victory was short-lived: Likud may be the biggest party, but Netanyahu doesn’t have the majority of seats required to form a governing coalition. Together with his natural partners – the smaller religious and right-wing parties – he only has 58 of the 120 seats in the Knesset to bank on.

Likud won 36 seats on Monday – four more than in the last election in September. That’s also three seats more than centrist Kahol Lavan, which won the same number of seats this week as it won last September (33).

Rise of Kahol Lavan and Likud over the past year, which has included three general elections.Credit: Haaretz

A total of 1,351,368 Israelis voted for Likud on Monday – that’s 237,751 more than last September. Where did the nearly quarter-of-a-million extra votes for Likud come from? According to the party itself, many came from longtime Likudniks who, for whatever reason, stayed home last September.

Indeed, voter turnout in cities and towns known to be Likud strongholds was much higher in this latest round. But that doesn’t explain the entire difference: Likud claims it also succeeded in luring away voters from other right-wing parties – and, probably to a lesser extent, voters from its main competitor, Kahol Lavan.

Yamina, the right-wing religious party headed by Naftali Bennett, lost over 20,000 votes between September and March. Yisrael Beiteinu – the ultra-secularist party headed by Avigdor Lieberman that targets Russian-speaking immigrants – lost over 47,000. Each of these parties, as a result, will have one less seat in the 23rd Knesset. Likud also appears to have posted big gains at the expense of the far-right Otzma Yehudit – founded by followers of Meir Kahane, the racist rabbi once considered beyond the pale. Otzma Yehudit did not cross the electoral threshold in either of the two elections, but won much fewer votes in the latest round: Last September it picked up 83,609 votes, but this week only gained 19,354; the difference is 64,255 votes.

Altogether, then, these three parties lost over 130,000 votes between the two elections. That is equivalent to more than half of Likud’s total gain. Based on these numbers, Otzma Yehudit seems to have played the biggest role among the parties that contributed to Likud’s surge.

We certainly can’t know for sure that all the votes Otzma Yehudit lost – the equivalent of nearly two Knesset seats – went to Likud. The only other likely beneficiary would have been Yamina, but Yamina lost rather than gained ground in this election. Indeed, a look at the breakdown of votes in key right-wing strongholds would seem to indicate that Otzma Yehudit’s losses were often Likud’s gains. In Jerusalem, for example, Likud gained over 12,800 new votes between rounds two and round three, while Otzma Yehudit lost over 7,000. Yamina, meanwhile, also lost votes in Jerusalem. The same pattern was evident in Be’er Sheva and Bat Yam.

Even in the radical settlement of Hebron, where its party leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, lives, Otzma Yehudit lost ground to Likud: In September, Likud won 24 votes in Hebron, while Otzma Yehudit won 86 – more than three times as many. On Monday, Likud got 45 votes compared with 39 for Otzma Yehudit.

With election polls in recent weeks showing it had no chance of crossing the electoral threshold, Otzma Yehudit came under intense pressure from Likud to withdraw, so that votes would not be wasted on the right. In hindsight, it turns out Likud had little to fear. In fact, Netanyahu can probably thank the Kahanists for his so-called “victory” – or at least Likud’s success in reclaiming the title of Israel’s largest party.

Votes won and lost by leading parties in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the last two elections.Credit: Haaretz

2. A mythical right-wing surge?

Leaders of the right-wing parties declared Monday’s result proof that the momentum had returned to their side once again. But did it? It turns out that the number of votes that went to right-wing parties in the latest election increased only negligibly compared with the first election of 2019.

Last April, a total of 2,216,547 Israelis voted for right-wing parties. That includes two parties, Hayamin Hehadash and Zehut, that failed to cross the electoral threshold. The other parties were Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Kulanu (the latter went on to merge with Likud).

Less than a year later, right-wing parties won a total of 2,238,233 votes. That includes Otzma Yehudit, the one right-wing party that did not cross the threshold this time. The other parties were Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina (an alliance of Hayamin Hehadash, Habayit Hayehudi and National Union). So, in 11 months the right pulled in an extra 21,686 votes. Considering that 271,754 more Israelis voted this week than last April, that’s not a whole lot.

And what about the other political camp? Last April, a total of 1,885,033 Israelis voted for center-left parties. That includes Gesher, which ran on its own but failed to cross the electoral threshold. The other parties were Kahol Lavan, Labor, Meretz, Hadash-Ta’al and United Arab List-Balad (the Arab parties ran under two separate slates in that election). Less than a year later, the center-left parties – Kahol Lavan, the Joint List and the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance – won a total of 2,067,823 votes. So, in the space of 11 months, the center-left gained 182,790 votes – nearly 10 times as many votes as on the right. Clearly, most of these new votes came from the Joint List, which picked up two extra seats compared to September and was arguably the biggest winner of all on Monday night: The number of people voting for the Arab alliance had shot up 60 percent in just 11 months.

There was a time when Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu would have been considered an intrinsic part of the right-wing bloc. Not so much anymore. But neither does it naturally fall into the category of the center-left: Lieberman is a political hawk, but quite liberal on matters of religion and state. These days, it is becoming increasingly common to lump Yisrael Beiteinu together with parties on the center-left, because they all belong to the anti-Netanyahu camp. Lieberman also said Thursday he would recommend Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz as the next prime minister. Yisrael Beiteinu won more votes on Monday that it did last April, but almost 50,000 less than it did in September.

Otzma Yehudit's decline in the West Bank settlements over two elections.Credit: Haaretz

3. Kahol Lavan gives Labor the blues

Israelis who once voted for the Labor Party account for Kahol Lavan’s main base of support. Nowhere is this more clear than on the kibbutzim – a key left-wing stronghold where Gantz’s party once again left its left-wing competition in the dust.

For example, at Israel’s largest kibbutz, Givat Brenner, Kahol Lavan captured more than 60 percent of the vote, with Labor-Gesher-Meretz not even picking up a quarter. On almost all of Israel’s roughly 260 kibbutzim, Kahol Lavan won more than half the vote, claiming even more than in the previous two elections. The same held true of cities and towns that were once key Labor Party bases. In Givatayim, for instance, Kahol Lavan won 55.5 percent of the vote on Monday, compared with 50.3 percent in September. In Herzliya, Kahol Lavan won 51.4 percent (compared with 47.7 percent last time); in Hod Hasharon 57.3 percent (compared with 53 percent); and in Ramat Hasharon 59.6 percent (compared with 53 percent).

Many Israelis would say that despite all the eulogies, this is proof that the Labor Party never died – it just got another name.

Attendees leaving the Kahol Lavan post-election event at Hangar 11 in Tel Aviv, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

4. One plus one doesn’t equal two

Did the merger between Labor-Gesher and Meretz – the two parties affiliated with the Zionist left – pay off in the end? Yes and no. Had Labor-Gesher and Meretz each run on their own, there was a great risk – at least, that’s what internal polling showed – that one or both parties might not have crossed the electoral threshold. In September, Meretz (running then with another two parties as part of the Democratic Union) won five seats and Labor-Gesher won six. On Monday, the merged Labor-Gesher-Meretz ticket won a total of seven seats – in other words, four fewer. Where did those seats go?

Clearly, some seats went to Kahol Lavan, which managed to persuade many voters on the center left that the size of the biggest party in the bloc was more important than the size of the entire bloc. The biggest party, the reasoning went, would have a better shot at forming the next government. This time around, following the merger between Labor-Gesher and Meretz, it was easier to persuade voters as there was no longer any risk that one or both of the two smaller parties might not get in.

Labor-Gesher-Meretz leaders Orli Levi-Abekasis, left, Amir Peretz and Nitzan Horowitz at Labor Party headquarters in the wake of Monday's exit poll results, March 3, 2020. Credit: Meged Gozani

But the merged slate didn’t only lose votes to Kahol Lavan. Many traditional Meretz voters were apparently concerned that Gesher head Orli Levi-Abekasis would push the party to the right. After all, she had previously served as a lawmaker with Yisrael Beiteinu. The best alternative for them was to give their votes to the Joint List.

But it wasn’t only classic left-wing voters who turned their back on the party. When Amir Peretz replaced Avi Gabbay as Labor leader last July, he set as his goal bringing in new voters from outlying areas where Likud has long reigned. As part of this strategy, Peretz initiated the merger with Levi-Abekasis. Like him, she comes from a traditional family with Moroccan roots and grew up in a small, working-class town of mainly North African Jews.

That seemed to work for Peretz in his hometown of Sderot, where Labor and Gesher went from a combined 651 votes in April to 1,073 in September. But in Be’er Sheva, the Negev capital, it fell from a combined 4,376 votes in April to 4,169 votes in September. And in Levi-Abekasis’ hometown of Beit She’an, the combined vote for Labor and Gesher in September was 403 – 330 votes less than Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party alone got there in April.

For any newcomers who did cast their ballot for Labor-Gesher in September, the recent merger with Meretz turned out to be one step too many to the left: The party lost most of the Mizrahi, working class votes it may have picked up in the previous round. Where did those votes go? Mostly back to Likud. In almost all the towns where Labor-Gesher-Meretz lost ground on Monday, Likud made big gains. In many cases, so too did Shas, the religious party popular among working-class Mizrahi Jews.

Peretz had long resisted pressure on the left to merge with Meretz. In retrospect, he may have been justified.

5. The Joint List’s Jewish voters

According to initial estimates, a record number of Israeli Jews voted for the Arab-led Joint List on Monday. It’s hard to know exactly how many, but a look at the breakdown of votes in Israel’s three largest cities, which have significant pockets of Jewish voters on the hard left, provides some indication.

An Arab Israeli girl casts her father's ballot at a poling station in the Bedouin town of Rahat near Be'er Sheva, March 2, 2020.Credit: AFP

In April, the Joint List factions, which ran under two separate tickets, got 6,198 votes in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. In the latest election, that number almost doubled to 11,410. In Haifa, the Joint List went up from 8,783 votes in April to 14,915 in the latest round, and in Jerusalem, it more than doubled its strength from 2,147 votes in April to 5,321 votes on Monday. About 20,000 of the Joint List’s 580,044 votes are believed to have come from Jewish supporters in the latest election – about double the number Arab parties usually get, but still not enough to account for even one Knesset seat.

6. Women’s party? Too soon

Israel’s newly formed women’s party Kol Hanashim won just 2,783 votes in Monday’s election – a measly 0.06 percent of the vote and nowhere near the minimum required to get itself into the Knesset. Among the other new parties to barely leave a mark was Halev Hayehudi, a party committed to ending Israeli arms sales to rogue regimes. It won only 514 votes.

Another new party that failed to push through – though it did win 1,375 votes – was Mishpat Tzedek. Founded by Larissa Trimbobler-Amir, the wife of Yigal Amir, who assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, the raison d’être of this party is to get her husband a retrial. He is serving a life sentence. Some Israelis might be shocked that a party dedicated to such an effort would win that many votes; others might take comfort in the fact that considering the state of Israeli democracy, it didn’t win more.

Shas voting slips on the floor at the party\s post-election celebration in Jerusalem, March 3, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

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