Law of Unintended Consequences Rules Supreme in Israel's Elections

The anti-Netanyahu campaign succeeded in turning the man who had been prime minster for the past six years into an underdog in the eyes of many in the periphery of the country.

Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens
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An Israeli voting in the election, March 17, 2015.
An Israeli voting in the election, March 17, 2015.Credit: AP
Moshe Arens
Moshe Arens

In last week’s elections the law of unintended consequences ruled supreme. It all began with the law to raise the threshold for election to the Knesset to 3.25%. The intentions of the parties promoting this change in the electoral system were presumably the best – to improve the stability of future coalition governments. Actually, there was no reason to expect that that would be the result. However, it forced the three existing Arab Knesset factions to unite, despite their divergent political platforms, or else face extinction.

So they united, creating a large Arab bloc whose only common denominator was hostility to the State of Israel. They aimed to obtain 16 or 17 Knesset seats, and boasted that this large Arab bloc in the Knesset would be instrumental in removing Benjamin Netanyahu from power.

The reaction of much of the Jewish electorate was not difficult to foresee. To some the elections had become a struggle for Israel’s very existence. It turned out to be a reason to vote for Netanyahu.

Next came the campaign of the “Zionist Union.” They concentrated all their fire on Netanyahu, and turned the electoral contest away from rival ideologies into a duel between Isaac Herzog and his partner Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu. All now watched the almost daily polls to see whether Herzog was leading Netanyahu and by how much, assuming that the candidate with a lead would also form the next coalition government. This forced Likud into a campaign to move voters from its “natural allies” to Likud. Naftali Bennett came down and Netanyahu went up.

The campaign conducted against Netanyahu by the Herzog-Livni camp was brutal. Anyone but Netanyahu was their slogan. It’s us or him, their billboard advertisements screamed. They succeeded in turning the man who had been prime minster for the past six years into an underdog in the eyes of many in the periphery of the country. They who considered themselves the underdog discriminated against by the privileged sectors of Israeli society were drawn to identify with him and support him. A campaign intended to draw support from Netanyahu ended up moving support to Netanyahu.

Along came the media. With one exception, they all wanted to get rid of Netanyahu. No holds were barred. A vicious campaign was launched against him. But to the population in the development towns, seemingly living on the periphery of rich Israel, the media were the representatives of the privileged classes living in north Tel Aviv. To the poorer sections of the country the media were seen as part of the Ashkenazi elite caring little for them, who seemed to care more for Israel’s Arab citizens than for the Jewish citizens in the development towns. The media was considered by them as innately hostile and its objectives were suspect. A vote for Netanyahu was a vote against the media. The media’s almost unanimous support for Herzog and Livni managed to increase support for Netanyahu.

And the opinion polls, that day after day predicted a lead for the Herzog-Livni camp, actually worked in Netanyahu’s favor. They were a stimulus for Netanyahu’s supporters, and even to those who at first were undecided, to “close that gap.”

Why were the pollsters so wrong? Quite aside from the inherent sampling errors when sampling a small segment of the population, and the difficulty to reach truly representative samples, it is likely that many Likud supporters saw the pollsters as part of the media, hostile to Netanyahu, and refused to cooperate with them. That skewed the polling results in Herzog’s favor, which energized many to go and vote for Netanyahu in order to close that gap.

Assembling tens of thousands in Rabin Square as a show of strength in order to energize the forces calling for Netanuyahu’s downfall ended up energizing Netanyahu’s supporters and did the Herzog-Livni campaign no good. It was clear that the speakers and the audience were not truly representative of Israel’s population. Those who felt left out were not going to vote for the Herzog-Livni camp.

Much of the campaign against Netanyahu ended up working in his favor and brought him victory.

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