In the early hours of March 18, 2015, as the results of the elections began coming in and it transpired that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud had won by a margin of six Knesset seats over Zionist Union, the knives were out for the pollsters. For two months they had been predicting a small, but persistent and growing gap in favor of Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union. Even the normally more accurate Election Day exit polls had the two parties in a virtual tie, with a tiny lead perhaps for Netanyahu.
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What had happened? Was it, as some suggested, the “Yom Kippur of the pollsters,” or had they actually called it right and Likud had snatched victory in the last few days of the campaign, when Israeli law prohibits publication of polls? If so, how? Ten months later, footage and interviews with the Likud campaign managers obtained by Channel 2’s political correspondent Amit Segal indicate that Netanyahu’s campaign team executed a well-planned operation in the last week and on Election Day itself, which indeed turned the tide.
Segal’s feature, which was broadcast this week (below with English subtitles), shows focus groups conducted by Likud researchers in which the party’s potential voters describe their feeling that Netanyahu is “tired” and that they don’t feel motivated to vote for him. They did say, however, that they would come back to his Likud if they felt that there was a danger of the left coming to power. The conclusion of Likud strategists was that their biggest threat was the other right-wing parties, particularly Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi.
At the start of the campaign season, the expectation in both the media and the political establishment was that Netanyahu would try and make his battle against Iran’s nuclear program a central plank of his campaign, while his rivals in the center-left would focus their message on the growing inequality in Israeli society and the struggles of the middle-class.
According to campaign insiders interviewed by Segal, they advised Netanyahu not to try and fight his opponents on the economic battlefield, though Netanyahu wanted to respond with figures on Israel’s growing exports and GDP. But they didn’t think that Iran would be a vote-winner either.
Knowing that the key was winning back the reluctant Likudniks, they urged him to fight a much more visceral campaign. A skeptical Netanyahu was won over and in his public appearances and in the Likud’s propaganda, Herzog and his partner Tzipi Livni were mercilessly portrayed as “the left” who couldn’t stand up to Israel’s enemies. But it didn’t work.
Likud’s own polling in the last weeks of the campaign was even worse for Netanyahu than the four-seat gap predicted in the media – it had him trailing by six. Instead of changing tack, they doubled down. Likud had mapped out its potential support, over a million Israeli voters, eschewing other parts of the electorate.
The left-right divide was ratcheted up and an ethnical identity tone was added. The message was sent out, not through the press, distrusted by Netanyahu and his advisers. Instead, they “tunneled under the media” using millions of text and voice messages. The messages, including a recording of Miri Regev, now the culture minister, reminded Likudniks of how the left had called them in the past “chachchachim” – literally Mizrahi riffraff – and how the “superior” Herzog and Livni would continue dismiss those living in Israel’s peripheries and traditional Jews.
The next step was to use the Arab voters, especially the Joint List, which was doing well in the polls. Anonymous text messages warned that Herzog had promised to appoint and Arab minister (a false claim, Herzog had said he wouldn’t rule out an Arab MK serving on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee). It worked – Likud’s pollsters detected a turnaround in the last weekend of the campaign; they knew the gap was closing.
But instead of promising victory, they chose to broadcast panic. Netanyahu, who began a blitz of interviews on every possible television and radio channel, said “I’m definitely worried.” The message was that “the rule of the right is in danger” and it was relentlessly repeated. The million targeted voters were bombarded – Likud sent out 18 million text and 8 million voice messages in the last week of the campaign, five million of them on Election Day itself. The public saw a panic-stricken prime minister, but Netanyahu was receiving polls nearly hourly and knew he was riding a wave of Likudniks spooked into coming home.
The coup de grace began on the afternoon of Election Day. What the media knew about was the short video of Netanyahu on the Likud’s Facebook page warning of "Arab voters flowing in huge numbers to the polls.” But what the journalists weren’t getting (they hadn’t been targeted as Likud voters) was the salvos of text-messages telling Likudniks that “Arab turnout is three times as high as usual” (false) and that Hamas had called upon Israeli Arabs to vote for the Joint List (true). The message was rammed through to the most recalcitrant Likudniks.
The exit polls closed at 8 P.M., so results could be prepared for the television elections broadcasts as the actual polls closed at 10 P.M. All three channels had Likud and Zionist Union in a dead heat. What they didn’t know was that huge numbers flowing to polls in those last two hours were not Arabs but Likudniks. In the 2013 election, 230,000 voters turned up in the last two hours, and in 2015 no less than 584,000 arrived to vote between 8 P.M. and 10 P.M. They were the six-seat majority for Likud of right-wingers, spooked in to voting for Netanyahu by the fear of a leftist coalition supported by Arabs.