Israel’s election: What happened?

The most salient and instructive fact about the recent Israeli election is that every part of the conventional wisdom turned out to be wrong. The election was a referendum on Netanyahu, and the people were tired of him. So he would lose. Wrong. Unlike previous elections, this one would revolve around widespread economic discontent, where Likud was weak, rather than security concerns, where it was dominant. Wrong. Netanyahu’s aggressive turn to the right—his confrontation with Obama over Iran, his repudiation of the two-state solution, his “us or them” attack on Arab Israeli voters—smacked of desperation and would surely backfire. Wrong. A new political center of (to quote Bernard Avishai) “younger, more cosmopolitan voters” had emerged. Not enough to make a difference. Given legal prohibitions against surveys in the closing days of the campaign, it is understandable that pollsters missed that late surge for Likud. But even the exit polls were wrong.

What happened?

From one standpoint, barely anything “happened” at all. These elections were some of the most unnecessary in Israeli history, with no major event triggering a fracture in the government and necessitating new elections. And in the absence of any such events, almost identical numbers of voters stayed in the same camps as two years ago. The center-left block of parties that included Labor, Meretz and Tzipi Livni’s party went from 27 seats to 28 while the right-wing block that included HaBayit HaYehudi, Yisrael Beytenu, and Netanyahu’s Likud gained a single seat as well, moving from 43 seats to 44. The socio-economically-oriented center, composed in the last election of Yair Lapid’s extremely successful Yesh Atid and tiny Kadima was simply replaced by a more even distribution between Yesh Atid and Moshe Kahlon’s new Kulanu party. In both elections, this block won 21 seats. In fact, the only real change in block strength is among the Arab and ultraorthodox parties, with the latter losing 5 seats and the former parties gaining 3.

The security-oriented right-left divisions are apparently more entrenched, and Israeli voters less migratory, than pundits had predicted—particularly in the absence of any major intervening events. It is the relative strength of the parties within the blocks on the right and the center that makes yesterday’s result such a sweeping victory for Netanyahu.

Within the right-wing block, and likely among those socio-economic and religious voters who want a right-wing government, Netanyahu’s tactics seem to have worked quite well. By framing the election as a two-party race that his party was losing, Netanyahu refocused voters on the basic right-left divide that separates his Likud party from the Zionist Camp of Isaac Herzog and ignited a panic on his side of that divide. Based on a late surge in the exit polls, that panic appeared produced real results, especially late on election day.

Pundits hoping for a major shift in Israeli politics also undervalued fundamentals. In recent years, the Israeli left has become a Tel Aviv-centric force, largely ceding the smaller, more working-class and less-cosmopolitan cities to the right and the religious. In Tel Aviv, the Zionist 34 percent trounced Likud’s 18 percent, with an even bigger margin between the left and right blocks. But aside from a close race in the coastal city of Haifa, Likud won every other of Israel’s ten largest cities—and mostly by wide margins. Until the center-left mounts a serious challenge to Likud dominance in so much of the country outside Tel Aviv, it will have a hard time assembling a governing majority.

If so much remained essentially unchanged, why has the 2015 election produced such a stir? Three explanations strike us as plausible. First, commentators are reacting, not against the previous political baseline, but rather to pre-election expectations of a significant political shift that failed to occur. If the polls had predicted what actually happened, the post-election conversation would be very different.

Second, this election took place against the backdrop of a confrontation between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration. Although serious Israeli-U.S. confrontations have occurred in the past—during the Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush administrations, for example—the choreography of this one is unusually dramatic.

And finally, the results of this election matter—more than most.

Peter Berkowitz, a thoughtful conservative, disagrees. He argues that there is less to this election than meets the eye, because the foreign and defense policy differences between the Zionist Union and are Likud more tonal than substantive. Besides, says Berkowitz, Netanyahu didn’t really repudiate the two-state solution but merely said that it was impractical in current circumstances.

We are not so sure. A coalition led by the Zionist Union at least would have tried to reopen talks with the Palestinians and (as Berkowitz acknowledges) would have scaled back or outright frozen settlement activity beyond the Green Line. Because Netanyahu’s new stance rules out meaningful talks, the Palestinians will focus their efforts even more on the United Nations and other international bodies, threatening the further diplomatic isolation of Israel and unending headaches for American diplomats. Herzog would have worked to repair relations with the Obama administration, which Netanyahu’s reelection all but rules out. And American Jews, who remain mainly liberal in their outlook, would have been less torn than they have been during the Netanyahu era. 

Make no mistake: this was a consequential election. Israelis understood that, which is why they turned out to vote in such large numbers. Now they—and we—must live with the consequences of their choice.