Israeli elections: how Netanyahu defied the pollsters

Bibi's surge came mainly at the expense of other right wing parties. The question now is whether he can form a stable coalition


The Israeli Labour party – merged with Tzipi Livni’s ‘Hatnua’ party and rebranded as Zionist Union for the 2015 election – just won by far its largest vote share since 1999, but it is not celebrating today. It is not just the fact that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud outpolled Zionist Union by 30 seats to 24 that will leave it disappointed; it is the sense of missed opportunity.

Never had Netanyahu appeared more beatable. A broad-based anti-Bibi campaign in Israel included much of the print media and massed ranks of former military officers and security officials. The Likud party list looked tired and spent, and their campaign was devoid of substance. Netanyahu himself was beset with a personal scandal surrounding the misuse of public funds in his household; found himself blamed in a state report into the housing market crisis; and drove into a headlong collision with the White House.

The BICOM Poll of Polls showed him in steady decline over the last six weeks of the campaign, predicted to get 21 seats, with Zionist Union on 25.  The Israeli political commentariat widely anticipated a poor showing, to the point where Netanyahu himself appeared in panic.

But Israeli elections usually defy pollsters predictions, partly because they are unable to identify late swings among undecided voters, in what is a very volatile electorate. Netanyahu apparently won back supporters in the final days with a late campaign blitz. He took to the media to stress the security threats facing Israel, and convinced voters that wanted him to remain prime minister – still the majority in Israel – that he was about to be replaced by a left-wing government that would endanger the country.

His surge came mainly at the expense of other right wing parties, especially Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home and the hard-right/ultra-Orthodox mashup ‘Yahad’, the latter failing to reach the threshold. Consequently, the balance between left, centre and right is not very different from that predicted in the polls, and not very different from what it was before the election. But critically, Likud is now by some way the largest party.

The fact that Zionist Union finished so far behind Likud will inevitably be seen as a failure. The party won close to the total it had been predicted by pollsters, and its 24 seats is more than the 21 seats Labour and Livni’s Hatnua won running separately in 2013 (21). But the campaign still did not convince anything like enough voters that it offered a credible alternative to Netanyahu.

Questions will be asked about the wisdom of the rotation agreement (whereby Herzog and Livni agreed to alternate as prime minister), the ‘two heads are better than one’ approach in the early stages of the campaign, and negative ‘It’s us or him’ messaging. Only in the final weeks did Zionist Union respond to the fact that Livni had become a drain on the ticket, and attempt to refocus primarily on branding Herzog positively as a credible prime minister. The decision to jettison the rotation deal on the eve of polling day to woo last minute undecideds was a zig zag that apparently did them no favours. The strong showing by the newly formed United Arab list may also have cost Zionist Union seats.

So what will come next? Netanyahu’s stated reason for calling the election was a stronger personal mandate and more stable coalition. To the surprise of many, Netanyahu has succeeded on the first count. Running a joint list with Yisrael Beitenu in 2013, Likud had just 18 seats, and now it has 29. Whether Netanyahu can indeed form a stable coalition, and in particular one that can pass a budget within the legally mandated period, is the next question.

The self-identifying right-wing or ‘national’ parties, in addition to the ultra-Orthodox, account for 57 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. To get to a 61 seat majority Netanyahu needs to bring in at least one party from the centre. Moshe Kahlon – a popular former Likud minister who left to form his own new centrist party – was one of the big winners, taking 10 seats largely at the expense of centrist rivals Yesh Atid, and will be in a pivotal position.

But what does it mean for Labor and the Israeli centre-left? A national unity coalition is not impossible but looks unlikely, so the party will have to come to terms with another spell in opposition. Like a once successful football club now desperately seeking a new formula for success, Labour has a tendency to fire the manager every time it fails to emerge on top. Herzog’s challenge will be to persuade a disappointed party that if they stick with him, as a strengthened opposition, facing a narrow right-wing government, they will be well positioned for next time, which in Israeli politics, can be sooner than you think.

Dr. Toby Greene is the Director of Research at BICOM, deputy editor of Fathom, and author of ‘Blair, Labour and Palestine: Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11’ 

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