Why Israelis Really Reelected Netanyahu

It wasn't simply a matter of responding to fear-mongering and racism. We all voted for hope, right and left alike, yet we are divided on what we hope for.

Steve Klein
Steven Klein
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The election result was all about ethnicity, and revenge was served up cold at the ballot box.
The election result was all about ethnicity, and revenge was served up cold at the ballot box.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Steve Klein
Steven Klein

The results of Israel’s elections have deflated Israelis who believed that change was around the corner. Perhaps they didn’t realize that the right was as strong as ever because we live in the social media age, where we filter out the messages we don’t like or are uncomfortable with, or they get filtered out for us.

The traditional media got it wrong, too. Eyeing the polls that gave Zionist Union an edge over Likud, they concluded that the public was fed up with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ignored the solid lead that the right-religious bloc held.

After Netanyahu's victory, commentators scrambled for explanations, saying he offered a vision with no hope and the frightened public rushed into his arms. This conclusion patronizes and discounts right-wing voters. The truth is, we all voted for hope, right and left alike, but we are divided on what we hope for.

The left puts its hopes for Israel’s future in diplomatic agreements that will transform her relationship with her neighbors. The right puts its hopes in a strong, self-reliant Israel that is willing to go it alone in the face of eternally hostile neighbors.

When it came to diplomacy, the right was not alone in resorting to electoral scare tactics. The center-left portrayed the right as leading Israel down the road of diplomatic isolation. The difference was that the right’s message resonated with more Israelis than did the left's. Why? Because it better reflected reality. The U.S.-Israel relationship always prevails over White House-Jerusalem crises; the BDS movement has failed to dent Israel's economy; Israel's foreign trade has only strengthened despite the occupation; and the security situation is still better than it was under the last Labor-led government in 2001.

But this election wasn’t just about diplomacy, as Rotem Starkman observed, but also economics. Here, too, Netanyahu inspired more hope than he got credit for. The combined forces of Labor and Hatnuah in the form of Zionist Union did more poorly in 2015 than Labor did with Shelly Yacimovich in 2013 among the middle and lower-class strata. In Netivot, Zionist Union didn’t even cross the electoral threshold this year.

The media overplayed the steep rise in housing prices to frame the outgoing government as an economic failure. Yet, some people in the south voted for Likud because of improved infrastructure and low unemployment, a Likud voter told me. In short, voting Likud to them means hope for a better economic future. Meanwhile, Zionist Union’s vision mainly appealed to Ashkenazim and the well-to-do.

If anyone still thinks the prime minister only won with his last-minute antics, recall that even as Zionist Union led in the final polls, 48 percent of Israelis said they believed Netanyahu to be the most appropriate candidate for prime minister. This accounts for all Likud voters and then some.

Now, Noah Efron made an important observation in these pages last week that the left made palpable electoral gains, but it still trails 1999 levels, when it had more credibility in the eyes of the Israeli public. Meanwhile, the right-religious bloc increased slightly in strength to 67 seats, including Kulanu, which after all is dominated by ex-Likudniks including its leader Moshe Kahlon. In other words, Zionist Union labored to recover voters who wandered away from the left to the center over the past 15 years but failed to make a dent with the rest of Israeli society.

The upshot is that most Israelis are still not ready for the left to retake the reins of the country. The hope that the left offers does not resonate with more than half the population as much as the hope that the right offers, be it vis-a-vis security, economics or a combination thereof. Add the right-leaning religious parties to the formula, and there was never a realistic chance for the left to make a viable coalition, no matter what numbers games were played with the polls (as I pointed out prior to the election).

Thus, the left has to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to reconnect with the economically disadvantaged and regain the public's trust in a reinvigorated peace process, without using ineffective scare tactics. “Either us or him” pales as a slogan compared to 1992’s winning “Israel is waiting for Rabin.” Like Yitzhak Rabin, it’s also time for the left to take a long view of its struggle to lead Israel toward its vision.

Over the past decade, a series of centrist and center-left parties have propped up successive Likud governments, lending them legitimacy even as they consolidated Israel’s hold on the territories. A similar phenomenon happened between 1977-1990, when first Dash, then Tami and Telem and finally Labor, helped keep Likud in power for 13 years. Only after Likud formed a government based on a solid right-wing majority, and the Labor Party under Yitzhak Rabin provided a more hopeful vision, did enough Israelis rise up to throw Likud out of power.

The pendulum must swing further right before it can swing back to the left. A right-religious coalition will soon govern Israel. The left must seize this opportunity to become a fighting opposition while the right undoes itself.

Steven Klein is a senior editor at Haaretz and tweets at @stevekhaaretz.



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