Benjamin Netanyahu won the election because he delivered a crystal-clear sharp message to his voters: I am the true right and I am committed to the values of the “national camp,” topped by hatred of Arabs and opposition to withdrawal from territories conquered by Israel in 1967. This is what his voters wanted to hear and they rewarded him generously at the polling stations. Netanyahu convinced them that he was as much of a nationalist as Habayit Hayehud’s Naftali Bennett and as much of a racist as Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman – voters believed him and abandoned the satellite parties in favor of the original.
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The results belie the conventional claim that the “country has shifted to the right.” The fact is that Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties got 61 seats two years ago and 58 seats on Tuesday. Labor, Hatnua, Meretz and Yesh Atid, who compete for the same pool of voters in the opposing tribe, dropped from 45 to 39 seats. The crucial shift that decided these elections occurred within the rightist bloc, entrenching Likud as the dominant ruling party that will form the dominant hard core of the coalition.
This result is due to the campaign waged in the final days by Netanyahu, who returned to the deep roots of his political base, abandoning any attempt to portray himself as a moderate centrist. In the last two election campaigns Netanyahu tried to blur his right-wing positions and included parties from the left and center in his coalition. This time he veered sharply to the right, portraying his rivals and critics as anti-Zionist traitors who will erect an Islamic State right outside Tel Aviv. He capped it with a knock-out blow on Elections Day, warning that “hordes of Arabs are now on their way to the polling stations.” The coalition he will form will be right-wing and ultra-Orthodox, without fig leaves and cover-up in the form of Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor or Tzipi Livni.
Netanyahu was right. The Israeli-Arab conflict was, is and will remain the main item on Israel’s agenda. Not the cost of housing or banking fees, not even Iran’s nuclear program. Everyone would like cheaper housing, likeable banks and a friendly Iran. However, the Israeli voter does not define his or her identity and place on the political spectrum according to his attitude to Bank Leumi CEO Rakefet Russak-Aminoach or to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but according to his attitude towards Palestinians, the Arab minority in Israel and the settlements. This is the dividing line between left and right, between liberals and conservatives and to a large extent between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews and between secular and traditional and religious Jews.
Early in the campaign Netanyahu got it wrong. He worried about criticism over housing costs and the cost of living and believed that focusing on Iran would swing the public agenda in his favor. He was mistaken. On returning from Washington he realized that his speech there was of no interest to voters in Petah Tikva, Ariel and Rishon LeZion. There is no real dispute between right and left over Iran – his open dispute with U.S. President Barack Obama mainly concerns Netanyahu’s American supporters, and is of much less interest to Israelis. Netanyahu gathered his strength and shelved all talk about Iran, returning to his roots with declarations of “not an inch” in the territories.
Netanyahu’s rivals chose the opposite path. They identified the diplomatic front as the left’s weak spot, after the failure of the Oslo Accords and the disengagement from Gaza. They therefore tried to avoid these topics as much as possible, preferring to deal with social agendas, code for avoiding addressing the implications of the occupation, settlements and the costs of “security.” Instead of choosing a stance clearly distinguishing themselves from the right by presenting a counter ideology, Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni merely hoped that the public was fed up with Netanyahu and would accept any alternative. The height of absurdity was their video clip asking voters whether they prefered “three kindergarten aides or Netanyahu,” as if these aides would replace the prime minister, or as if he would move from the official residence to a WIZO day care center.
If the left ever wishes to return to power it must show that it has an ideological alternative to the right, not just an alternative to the personality of the leader of the right. This election showed that at the moment of truth people follow someone who fights for his positions. When Netanyahu posed as a centrist his voters drifted toward Lieberman and Bennett. When he unashamedly and unapologetically returned to his roots they flocked back into his arms. By trying to please everyone and not annoy anyone Herzog ended up in the opposition.