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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116 Responses to “Israeli elections: how Netanyahu defied the pollsters”

  1. damon

    On your question, the answers is no.
    I just don’t like the kind of society that Israel became.
    It wanted to be living in peace and bothering no one, but that just wasn’t possible as they only did things by half measures. If they were going to ethnically cleanse and steal land, they should have done it properly. Like has happened in the past in many other places.
    Like if Shia Arabs want to maintain control over Tikrit and such places now, they might just have to dispelled all the Sunnis completely and not let them back.

  2. damon

    Whatever (bonkers)

  3. ForeignRedTory

    ‘Like if Shia Arabs want to maintain control over Tikrit and such places
    now, they might just have to dispelled all the Sunnis completely and not
    let them back.’

    Considering how excessive tolerance made Daesh possible in the first place, that could well be in the cards.

    ‘If they were going to ethnically cleanse and steal land, they should have done it properly. ‘
    That way of putting it pres-supposes that the land belonged to so-called palestinians. Fun fact: you are talking about ;land previously claimedand controlled by Jordan. Jordan has relinquished its claims and signed a peace treaty.
    Possibly you are also going to blame Amal in Lebanon for only being halfhearted in dealing with the ‘Palestinian’ occupation?

    As forthe legal basis for any palestinuan claims – you offer none, you merely enter unsupported assertions.

  4. ForeignRedTory

    And if Israel has half a brain in the office of the PM. it will decide to let things be in Iran.

  5. damon

    Yeah maybe, but there are many former Arab villages in what’s now Israel where the former inhabitants were driven out.
    It’s a bit pointless arguing about this though as people will justify anything if they believe in a cause.
    There’s a YouTube somewhere of a 1948 Jewish/Israeli soldier admitting they did some things to Arab civilians that he is now ashamed of.
    The kind of thing that big Israel supporters ignore or deny.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    “excessive tolerance”

    Is that what you call not crushing Assad?

  7. ForeignRedTory

    Actually,it is what I would call a policy that does not make it sufficiently clear to the Sunni Arab minority in Irak that Inclusion must be earned through self-identification with the Nation. There can be no place for Communalism, as was most unfortunately stimulated by the Raj in India.

    As for not crushing Assad, I merely call that a wise decision.

  8. Guest

    Ah, no place for communities. Well well. Like in France, with the Jews today?

    As you support your bloody-handed chlorine bomber.

  9. Guest

    You mean Sellohestra, who describes his brain damage in that way? Erm..

  10. ForeignRedTory

    Would you prefer ISIS instead?

    ‘bloody-handed chlorine bomber.’
    Insibstantiated assertion. As the Kurds in Iraq could tel you, Chlorine Bombs is the hallmark of Mr Sunny-side-up.

  11. ForeignRedTory

    Actually, I would rather think someone in the sensible tradition of Eshkol. But definitely NOT Bibi

  12. ForeignRedTory

    ‘Like in France, with the Jews today?

    Why be in France when you could be in Eretz?
    Oh,that’s right! Afraid of having to serve in Zahal, of course.
    Draft-dodging like your Hadewarim buddies, putz?
    Afraid of your fancy Polish graces being bludgeoned by Sepharid NCOs who will force you to eat loof and halva rather than gefillte fisch?

    Make aliyah or cut the Jew-act.

  13. ForeignRedTory

    More like someone in the tradition of Levi Eshkol,and not a hysteric like Bibi.

  14. ForeignRedTory

    Try :Levi Eshkol. THAT kind of PM.

  15. ForeignRedTory

    Why be in France when you could be in Eretz?

    Probably,like your Hadewarim buddies, too scared that their fancy Polish graces will be marred by rough Sepharedim sergeants who will force them to eat loof from a common tin rather than Gefillte Fisch served on special glatt-kosher crockery.

    Either make Aliya and serve in Zahal,or cut the Jew-act, feckless draftdodger!

  16. Guest

    Keep spewing hate at the Polish as well as Jews.

    You can’t accept I’m British, of course, Lord Blagger.

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