Upon Further Review: Israel elections 2015

Israel’s 2015 elections have come and gone – but not without drama. What was projected to be a close race turned out to be a convincing Likud victory. Unless something truly unexpected takes place, Benjamin Netanyahu will remain Israel’s prime minister.

So what does it all mean? Many will try to arrive at prophetic truths from these elections, but I tend to equate this task like drawing water from a stone. The fact remains that these elections were fundamentally different in a number of ways from years past. As is always the case, history will be the most telling judge of what 2015 really said about Israel.

First, the election was prompted by Netanyahu in order to function as a referendum on his ability to lead the country. This is unprecedented in Israel’s history; not only was the political rhetoric throughout the campaign was centered almost exclusively around Netanyahu, but it pushed the electorate to decide who should be prime minister, rather than who they would like to see represent them in the Knesset. Case in point: the Zionist Union’s main slogan was “it’s us or him”.

This was also the first election following the decision to raise the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%. As a result, both small parties and their constituents has a serious decision to make. For the small parties, in particular those that represent the Arab population, it was time to adapt or die. Casting aside (at least temporarily) their disagreements, the Arab parties voted as a Joint List, and became the third largest party in the Knesset (although the statistics show that collectively they did not receive significantly more votes than they did in previously years running part). And for traditional voters of small parties, it was time to decide whether to continue supporting Ale Yarok – the legalization of marijuana party – and countless other political flyweights or cast their ballot for a party with a bit more muscle. How many of those voters decided at the last minute to throw their support for or against Netanyahu?

Finally, this was Israel’s first election dominated by social media. It is easy to take this angle for granted, or perhaps it is too easy to over-exaggerate its importance, but I believe it is worthy of note and in five or ten years something that political scientists will focus on. Heck, there is reason to believe that the election came down to an inflammatory video that Netanyahu’s campaigners posted on Facebook.

So analyze the raw data with a heavy dose of skepticism. I find the most successful approach is to accept that the election results tell a story of how Israelis felt on March 17, 2015, and ONLY on that day. Had elections been held on a different day, who knows! That is how close this race really was and how fickle the Israeli voter can be.

However, considering that a made a number of points in December when it was first announced that there would be elections (which you can read here in full), I feel compelled to address them once again and hold myself accountable.

Here they are, with commentary on my performance:

1. Operation Protective Edge still looms large. The shadow of last summer’s war was prominent during this election campaign: Herzog hoped to use it against Netanyahu and expose government unpreparedness leading up to the operation, while Netanyahu used it as evidence of the Israeli left’s continued naïveté and the threats along Israel’s borders.

2. What of the Arab-Israelis? The collective effort of the Arab-Israeli parties did ensure their continued presence in the Knesset, but the nationalist rhetoric of the political right, which at times depicted Arabs as a fifth column, was beyond the pale. I can’t predict the impact of those statements, however I cannot image they will be forgotten overnight.

3. Don’t forget about Avigdor Liberman. I got this one wrong. Avigdor Liberman had a forgettable campaign, Under investigation for corruption, several high ranking members of his party, including agriculture minister and party No.2 Yair Shamir, tourism minister Uzi Landau, public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee chairman David Rotem resigned.

The good news for Liberman? Despite his party’s poor showing (6 seats) he may retain his title as Foreign Minister.

4. The odds are against Yair Lapid. I think that my assumptions were more or less on target. Yesh Atid was the darling of the 2013 elections, winning 19 seats. Based on the resurgence of the Labor party and the emergence of another socioeconomic reform party, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, I figured that Yesh Atid would not perform as well.

I was right, and I was wrong. While Yesh Atid only mustered 11 seats, it remains a viable actor in the Israeli political scene – something many centrist parties have failed to do. The question going forward is whether Lapid and Herzog can figure out a way to coordinate their efforts in preparation for the next election.

5. Netanyahu is still king. Here is what I wrote in December:

“Until proven otherwise, it should be assumed that Netanyahu is going to remain Israel’s prime minister in the coming government. None of his challengers have equal credentials, and each of them will experience extreme difficultly building a coalition. The fact that Netanyahu is pushing for elections should be interpreted as a sign that he wants them to take place – which should worry his rivals. Even with the blunders of the last year, Netanyahu’s position on Israeli security remains strong. His economic credentials may be somewhat weaker, but it is difficult to see the economy taking centerstage after the events this summer. If Bibi can dictate the narrative of security as his rivals target one another, he can will maintain his position at the top.”

This is exactly what happened. Netanyahu engaged only on security and allowed the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, and Kulanu to snipe at each other’s socioeconomic agendas. When it appeared as if this strategy may not be enough, he played to the deepest fears of the Israeli public, drawing votes away from Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party (perhaps one of the election’s disappointments) in order to seize enough momentum to win.

All told, I would give myself a 3.75 out of 5.

Three other points of note before I hang up my election analyst cap:

1. Israel’s media needs to seek balance. It was a polarizing election, to say the least. But the Israeli media’s critique of Netanyahu has reached a point than many publications can no longer be expected to deliver fair coverage of the prime minister and his decision. The existence of Israel HaYom, a pro-Netanyahu daily that is distributed without charge all over the country, has only made the situation worse. Yes, newspapers should be able to print material as they see fit, but I shouldn’t be the only person concerned that the media is contributing to the polarization in Israeli society.

2. Campaign financing reform must take place. Whether it be Sheldon Adelson’s support for Netanyahu, or the arrival of the single-minded V15 group, there is altogether too much foreign investment in Israeli politics. I am not certain what the solution to this problem is, however this was the first time that it felt like the two largest parties were not only being supported by outside actors but were criticized each other for playing the same game.

3. The Zionist Union only has itself to blame. With four days before the elections, some polls projected the Zionist Union receiving 24 or 25 seats. Those prognostications were accurate. What wasn’t foreseen was Netanyahu’s furious comeback in those final days.

So should the Zionist Union feel satisfied or defeated? The answer is probably somewhere in between, though I assume it will hurt for many months to come.

I believe that there were a number of things that the Zionist Union could have done differently that may have changed the outcome on March 17.

First, Herzog should never have agreed to rotate the prime minister’s chair with Tzipi Livni. The merger between their parties was strategically questionable, as many Israel’s are critical of Livni, and the timing of the merger could have taken place later in the race, but no serious contender to Netanyahu should be willing to share power. In Israel it will only be interpreted as a sign of weakness. To make matters worse, when Herzog and Livni realized they may actually win the election they reversed their decision, making them appear indecisive.

Second, Herzog should have been a more assertive presence. Why was it former Mossad chief who addressed the rally in Rabin Square on March 7. Why wasn’t Herzog there? While security officials bring a certain amount of credibility to the table, Dagan was not running for political office. Herzog was. He needed to make the election about him, not about someone else.

Lastly, Herzog needed to want it more. This may mean that his future success will be dependent on his ability to stoop to Netanyahu’s level and play dirty, undoubtably sullying his public image. But what Netanyahu has proven time and again is that he is committed to winning at all costs. If his contenders don’t share the same bottom line they have little chance of defeating him.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel