National Security & Defense

Netanyahu Won Because He Moved Right

(Getty Images)
At the last minute, he persuaded Israeli voters who had grown tired of Likud’s efforts to appease centrists.

The results of the Israeli elections and the landslide victory of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party surprised analysts and pollsters alike. Up to two days before the elections, all polls predicted that Likud would lose by two or more Knesset seats. On election day, exit polls showed a narrow victory for Likud, which was now expected to win by one seat over its rival, Yitzhak Herzog’s Zionist Camp. But once the votes were counted, Netanyahu’s party was found to have won 30 seats, to the Zionist Camp’s 24.

In Israel and around the globe, observers were surprised. Seasoned Israeli pollster Kamil Foux told Haaretz about the failure of the pollsters, “When they told me the [real] election results, I wanted to die.” A senior Israeli television commentator who presented one of the leading television channel’s faulty polls said: “There is no denying it. We were massively wrong. The pollsters need to do some soul-searching.”

#related#The across-the-board failure of analysts and commentators to understand Israeli public sentiment leading to the 2015 elections is reminiscent of the intelligence failure of the Yom Kippur War. This is a humbling moment, both personally and professionally. It reminds Israel watchers of the untamed nature of the Israeli society, which is strongly independent-minded and deeply committed to the democratic idea, and truly believes that, at least during every election, power resides in the people, who can choose to support or punish their leaders in the polls.

What led to the surprising last-minute massive public-opinion shift in favor of the Likud party? What can explain Netanyahu’s surprising victory?

Some of the answers to these questions have to do with changes that took place in Israeli society over the past decade: notably, the rise of the religious Zionist camp in Israel. Other answers are rooted in the specifics of this particular election: the lack of a clear left-wing ideology, for example, and Netanyahu’s success at reinventing himself as a traditional right-wing politician.

The starting point for understanding the results of the 2015 elections is Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. &All Israeli settlements in Gaza were evacuated, as well as four settlements in the West Bank. Nearly 9,000 settlers were uprooted from their homes. The evacuation caused major strife between religious Zionists and most secular Israelis, who believed that the disengagement would improve relations with the Palestinians and save Israeli lives by alleviating the need to defend isolated settlements in Gaza. After heated public debate, the settlers were evacuated, in a defeat for them and their supporters.

This event caused a major crisis within the settler movement, which until then had viewed itself as a loyal partner of secular Zionism, and especially of Prime Minister Sharon. Members of the religious Zionist camp were now asking themselves what went wrong. How could they, who had sacrificed so much on behalf of the Jewish state and were once the beloved sons of Israeli politicians on the right, have lost the battle for the minds and hearts of the Israeli majority?

The religious Zionist camp came up with two different answers to this crisis in its relationship with the secular Israeli state. A small minority, led by some of the more extreme right-wing rabbis, bitterly spoke of a breakdown of relations with the secular state and suggested that it would attempt to take over the leadership of the state through an accelerated birth rate among the settlers. The majority of the religious Zionist camp, however, spoke of continuing the partnership with the state but under different terms. They believed that it was time for the religious Zionists, who until then had treated the authorities of the secular Zionist state with great reverence and admiration, to begin demanding leadership positions in government. As one of the leaders of the religious Zionist camp described it to me during an interview shortly after the disengagement, they no longer wanted to be the guy who checks if the kosher rules are kept in the restaurant cabin of the Zionist train. They now wanted to be the driver of the train. They would no longer play a humble second fiddle in the secular state’s orchestra but would choose the music and conduct. That was the only sure way for them to prevent further disengagements.

The decade that has passed since the disengagement has seen the settler movement working relentlessly toward this goal. Within a few years, they have become the primary foundation of the IDF’s officer corps. Their children volunteered in disproportionate numbers in all the elite units and became top pilots, paratroopers, and commandos serving on the front line. As a result, they also suffered a disproportionate number of casualties in the military. Gradually, the religious Zionist community and its skullcap-wearing youth replaced the secular youth of the kibbutzim as the core of Israel’s defense forces. The religious Zionist camp won much admiration and sympathy among large segments of the Israeli public, which now regarded it as the unwavering embodiment of Zionist principles.

The creation of Naftali Bennett’s HaBait HaYehudi (the Jewish Home) party in 2010 completed the settlers’ move to integrate into the mainstream of Israel’s political life. Bennett is the embodiment of the new face of religious Zionism. A former commander of Israel’s elite Maglan unit, he is a successful high-tech businessman who made a fortune when his company was sold to a foreign conglomerate. He speaks in updated Israeli slang and looks and sounds like a trendy secular Israeli, not an anachronistic, religious Diaspora Jew. In the early stages of the 2015 campaign, many right-wing Israelis, and the vast majority of the religious Zionist camp, had grown tired of Netanyahu and were expected to support Bennett’s party. At the time, HaBait HaYehudi was expected to gain as many as 15 Knesset seats, but Bennett over the course of the campaign made several mistakes, and Netanyahu’s campaigning in the three days before the election was especially effective. Religious Zionists ended up voting for Likud in greater numbers than predicted, Bennett’s party received only eight seats.

An important turning point occurred on Saturday evening, three days before the election. Netanyahu held a mass rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Most who attended were not typical Likud voters but religious Zionists and settlers. The organizer of the rally was none other than Daniella Weiss, a prominent settler from Kdumim in the West Bank, who in the past served as a member of the Yesha Council, the main organization representing the settlers and their core leadership. She organized the rally with the stated purpose of trying to prevent Likud’s defeat. Netanyahu, realizing that to win the election he had to win over may of the religious Zionists who were drawn to Bennett, delivered a speech reaffirming his commitment to the Jewish religion and promised to build thousands of new apartments “throughout the country,” including the West Bank.

Two days later, Netanyahu said in an interview that no Palestinian state would be established if he was elected. Abandoning his promises in the historic Bar Ilan speech of 2009, the prime minister said that he no longer believed in the two-state solution. That statement drew many in the religious Zionist camp, including West Bank settlers, to vote for Likud. Their vote symbolized the completion of the journey that the settler movement made following the disengagement from Gaza: They were finally accepted into the center of Israel’s public life and were able to determine who would serve as prime minister. Bennett, their representative, is destined to hold one of the top ministerial positions in the next government. Religious Zionism has now arrived.

But there was more to Netanyahu’s comfortable victory than simply the role played by the religious Zionist camp. Netanyahu’s movement away from his Bar Ilan speech symbolized his return to traditional right-wing politics. Possibly out of desperation, seeing that he could lose, he no longer attempted to portray himself, as he did in the two previous elections, as a moderate politician of the center. He revived the traditional positions of the “national camp” — namely, a skeptical attitude toward the intentions of the Arabs (even those who are Israeli citizens) and an opposition to idea of withdrawal from the territories that were captured by Israel in the 1967 war. His straightforward statements and his return to traditional right-wing positions met with approval among those who decided at the last moment to vote for him, after long months during which the bon ton in Israel, even among Likud supporters, was to say that they will support “anyone but Bibi.”

So it is incorrect to claim that the Israeli public moved to the right. It was not so much the Israeli public that experienced a last-minute change of heart. (Arguably, most Israelis have been consistently on the right ever since the failure of the Oslo Accords and the disengagement from Gaza.) Rather, it was the Likud party that shifted rightward, returning to its traditional positions. Netanyahu’s open conflict with the Obama administration made that shift easier: There was no longer any reason to play moderate out of fear of a possible American response. The administration in Washington openly interfered in Israel’s elections to sabotage Netanyahu. And since their gloves were off, Netanyahu, who had nothing to lose, could afford to break openly to the right.

Netanyahu made a correct last-minute calculation. He chose to focus, almost exclusively, on the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. At the end of the day, that remains the key issue on Israel’s agenda. This question, and not the price of housing or the Iranian nuclear bomb, is what defines the political identity of Israelis on either the left or the right. True, everyone wants cheaper housing, and everyone agrees that the ayatollah should not have the bomb. But these issues are not what determine one’s politics. The elections of 2015 made clear that the most important issue for the Israeli voters remain questions of peace and security. This issue is what separates liberals and conservatives, and to a large extent also Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and religious and secular voters.

After assuming early in the campaign that speaking about Iran would shift the public’s focus from Israel’s difficult social and economic problems, Netanyahu came to realize that Iran and his deepening conflict with President Obama mostly interested his supporters in the U.S. The Israeli public remained largely unmoved because on Iran there is a broad public consensus, and because for several years now most Israelis have believed that the Obama administration is generally hostile to Israel. So Netanyahu wisely put the Iranian issue aside and refocused his campaign on promises not to withdraw from the West Bank.

But Netanyahu’s victory would not be possible unless his rivals on the left made some grave errors. Throughout the campaign, Herzog and Tzipi Livni narrowly remained the representatives of what is known in Israel as “the white tribe” — the Ashkenazi, secular, highly educated, well-to-do, Tel Aviv–based liberal elites. This white tribe enjoyed the loud and unwavering support of the left-leaning media. In the Zionist Camp’s final big rally before the election, the artist and author Yair Garbuz, feeling assured of the Zionist Camp’s victory, criticized the generally more religious groups on the right, describing them as idol-worshipers who had taken over the state:

They told us, and they wanted us to believe, that . . . the thieves and bribe-takers are . . . only a handful. The corrupt and swinish hedonists are only a handful. The destroyers of democracy — a handful. Those who think that democracy is the tyranny of the majority — a handful. Those who kiss amulets, idol worshipers, and those who bow and prostrate themselves at the graves of saints — a handful. If all those are only a handful, then how come this handful is ruling us? How is it that . . . the handful became the majority?

Garbuz’s statement caused a public uproar in Israel, especially among more traditional and religious right-wing voters. He seemed to be criticizing the traditional Sephardi public, which tends to pray at the graves of religious Jewish scholars and saints. His comments were taken as a reawakening of the old divisions in Israeli society between right- and left-wing voters. Those divisions tend to also correspond to divisions between identities that are also ethnic and religious. With one unguarded statement he managed to awaken the old ghosts of identity politics — what most Sephardi right-wing voters regard as the snobbery and anti-Jewish attitude of the white tribe. On election day, this Sephardi suspicion was translated into massive support of Netanyahu.

But the Left had a bigger problem that led to its loss. The Zionist Camp identified the core questions of peace and security as problematic. The failures of the Oslo process, the disengagement from Gaza, and their disastrous and bloody consequences led the Left to abandon honest discussion of questions about peace and security, because it was unable to come up with new ideas or propose new solutions. Their ideas for peace and security were tried and failed, and so the leaders of the Zionist Camp focused almost exclusively on social issues. Having formulated no ideological response to the Right, Herzog and Livni ran a campaign that was wholly based on the notion that the public was so fed up with Netanyahu that it would be willing to vote for anyone else. But the Israeli public was too sophisticated to accept the vacuum of ideas. If the Left is ever to make a comeback, it will have to formulate a new set of ideas and propose concrete solutions to some of Israel’s oldest and most troubling problems.

Ironically, as the settler movement engaged in soul-searching and spent the last decade reinventing itself in ways that Israel’s mainstream center would tolerate and perhaps even admire, the Left is moving in the opposite direction. Instead of asking what went wrong and looking to find a strategy for winning back the Israeli people, most of the commentators on the left in the past 24 hours have retreated into bitterness and elitist condescension toward the Israeli people. The most popular Facebook page today in Israel is a leftist attempt to punish Israel’s south, which voted heavily for Likud. Referring to Israelis, Alona Kimhi, a popular author on the left, wrote: “Every people has the leadership it deserves. Long live stupidity, evil and false consciousness. Drink some cyanide, . . . Neanderthals.” And Gideon Levi of Haaretz wrote that Israel should hold another election, to elect not a new leader but a different people. Instead of asking why they lost touch with the Israeli people, the Left is washing its hands of them, which is hardly an effective strategy for winning future elections.

— Meyrav Wurmser is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute as well as the director of research at the Delphi Global Analysis Group consulting firm.

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