I am political junkie and with the exception of the constant barrage of negative ad campaigns, I love the election process. The polling, the analysis, the strategy; it’s great theater and drama. This week, I was able to experience an Israeli Parliamentary election for the first time, and if you think American elections have drama and political gamesmanship, it can pale in comparison to the Israeli version with its 10 or so competitive parties. And while there was great disappointment in the Israeli left, likewise on the U.S. left, the drama created from a “too close to call” on election night to a comfortable win by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party the next morning offered flashbacks to US Presidential elections in 2000 and 2004. It was a frantic and frenetic final 72 hours indeed.
But first a little background on Israel and parliamentary elections. Unlike in the U.S., where the electorate directly chooses the executive and legislative representatives from two major parties, in Israel the electorate choses from dozens of parties to fill the 120 seats in the Knesset (aka Parliament or Congress). The heads of the parties are determined in primaries. Seats in the Knesset are awarded based on a percentage of total votes cast and in order for a party to get at least one seat, it must cross a minimum threshold of vote percentage. The 20th Knesset will be sworn in on March 31st based on the results of Tuesday’s election and will include representatives from ten different parties ranging from the left wing Meretz to the right wing religious United Torah Judaism (UTJ). The individuals who now represent the various parties are chosen ahead of the election when each party submits a list ranking the MK’s (Ministers of the Knesset). If a party wins four seats, the top four in that party’s list will become a member of the Knesset.
But this only addresses the composition of the Knesset. By Israel’s Parliamentary rules, if a single party can get a majority of the votes (61 out of 120), it’s leader is appointed Prime Minister. In the history of Israel, that has never happened. Instead, a coalition government is formed, through a series of back office promises, deals, and negotiations. Once the election results are established, the President of Israel (today it is Reuven Rivlin) determines who will be given the opportunity to form a coalition. (The President is elected to one term of seven years by a majority in the Knesset. He is not elected by the citizens and while the Presidency in Israel is primarily a figurehead position, it does carry significant power when it comes to elections and the dissolution and formation of governments.) After consulting with senior MK’s, the President will ask the Minister with the best chance of forming a government to do so and is given 4 weeks (plus a two week extension if necessary). If he is unsuccessful, the President may give a second choice 28 days to form a government, if the President feels the current composition of the Knesset cannot create a government (61 seat majority), he may call for a unity government of several parties that may include a power sharing provision or he may call for new elections.
So how did we get where we are today? In December last year, the 19th Knesset voted to dissolve after the Netanyahu-led coalition fractured. President Rivlin called for elections on March 17th and the scrambling began led by three major events: The Arab Parties created the Joint List, a larger bloc of smaller Arab parties to make sure they would exceed the election threshold while becoming a coalition forming or leading opposition party, the center left Labor and Hatnua parties merged to form the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, and Moshe Kahlon split from Likud and in November established the Kulanu Party to champion social causes such as income inequality. The table was set for a sharply contested and compressed campaign where consolidations by the Arabs and center-left created formidable blocs and the right seemed to be fracturing.
What happened in the last 72 hours leading up to the election and what happened on election day could have pulled right from the 2004 Presidential Election in America, with a little bit of 2000 too. In Israel, there is a 72 hour blackout of polling preceding election day so many people and pundits were still hanging on the last available polling data that indicated that the Zionist Camp was slightly ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud party, and the Arab List was holding its own in third place with Lapid’s Center Right Yesh Atid party (a former coalition member of Netanyahu’s). Clearly the polling results worried Netanyahu as it appeared his controversial speech to the Joint US Congress had yielded little or no election benefit and sensing possible defeat. This necessitatied his US-based campaign bankroll, Sheldon Adelson to fly to Tel Aviv meet with Bibi’s campaign team at the Dan Tel Aviv where I happened to be staying. Yes the same Adelson who donated $100Million to the Romney campaign and owns the Israeli newspaper Israel Ha Yom, which serves as a Netanyahu campaign and PR sheet. To their credit, Netanyahu’s campaign team stepped up its game at the end. In campaign ads, public appearances, and interviews Bibi hit the opposition as weak (Herzog) and fickle (Livni), while telling all, he was the only guy who could defend Israel from Iran, ISIS, Hamas, and the other threats. Yes, the fear card was played over and over and while it may have targeted a few undecided, the message was really aimed at the right wing electorate who may have been voting for Bennett (Habayit Hayehudi), Liberman (Yisrael Beiteinu), and Kahlon (Kulanu). His campaign ads showing him as the only adult and his competitors as children were effective, while the Chuck Norris’s video to Israelis to vote for Bibi was essentially mocked by most. But the big card that Netanyahu played was his clear reversal on the two state solution when he told Israeli News Site, NRG, "Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to the radical Islam against Israel." This seemed to conflict with his speech in 2009 at Bar-Ilan University where he supported the two state solution and the Begin-Sadat agreement. This message was clearly targeting Bennett’s supporters in the settlements who violently oppose a Palestinian State. As we say in the states, Bibi was clearly trying to shore up his base and peel off right wing voters from his coalition partners.
Meanwhile on the left, the Joint Arab List, which had been polling exceptionally strong, was hoping for a record turn out on election day for the 800,000+ registered Arab voters (~15% of the total Israeli electorate) versus historical apathetic voter turnout. And suddenly within the Zionist Camp there was growing concern that Netanyahu and Likud were gaining momentum after his late stage appeal to the right. As I had speculated weeks ago, Herzog and Livni renounced their previous agreement that they would rotate the Prime Ministership if they won. Instead, Herzog would be the sole head of government, a decision based on internal polling that indicated that the polarizing Livni was a drag on the ‘ticket’ and if she was out of the picture, the Zionist Camp could draw in more from the center parties of Kulanu and Yesh Atid and possible get some Arab votes and liberal votes from the dovish Meretz party. But unlike Netanyahu who sought to poach voters from other right wing parties, Herzog did not aggressively try to peel off voters from Yesh Atid, a significant center bloc.
There was definitely a buzz on Tuesday, March 17th in Tel Aviv for election morning, a secular holiday in Israel, as many believed change was coming; and coupled with St. Patrick’s Day partying, the city was alive. Israeli polls opened at 7am and would close at 10pm for the 5,881,696 eligible voters, 5.3million of which are residents of Israel, and there was expectation that voter turnout would exceed the 67.8% from the 2013 elections. There were 25 lists of candidates (imagine that America?) totaling 1,280 candidates for the Knesset, including the one man list of Protecting Our Children – Stop Feeding Them Pornography. Voting would be conducted at 10,372 polls around the country including army bases. Prisons (yes inmates can vote in Israel), hospitals, 2,693 specifically for the physically disabled and another 1,548 for those with limited mobility. The cost of the election was $59.7million and would be supervised by the Central Election Committee. Exit polls would be announced immediately at 10pm and actual tallies, from the manual count would be known in the morning.
The battle lines had been drawn, hope versus fear, change versus status quo, and liberal elite versus settler. There were issues: Iran, cost of living, cost of housing, undocumented migrants, Palestinian statehood, US relations, and worldwide isolation. Stay the course with Likud or try something new? The devil you know versus the devil you don’t. Could Herzog really lead us? Is he strong enough? What has Bibi done for us? “We may not like Obama, but we need the US and Bibi is damaging that relationship”, was a constant refrain. There were reports of ballot stealing, voter intimidation, voter obstruction, outside agitators, false advertisements, and the usual mix of election shenanigans. As election day continued, Netanyahu and Likud became nervous going as far to use social media to get out the vote: “The right-wing government is in danger," Netanyahu wrote in a Facebook past, “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out." And thus two news stories were created, Bibi race bating with the use of “Arabs”, who ARE Israeli citizens and have every right to vote, and the claims that outside organizations, NGO’s, were trying to influence the vote. Allegations that the State Department was funding an Israeli organization via the OneVoice NGO to help unseat Netanyahu. In response to Bibi’s call to voters, Joint List candidate and MK Dov Khenin stated "A prime minister who campaigns against voting by citizens belonging to an ethnic minority is crossing a red line of incitement and racism."
When the exit polls were released at 10pm, there was surprise in the closeness of the race and disappointment on the left. Exit polls from the three major TV stations were very similar:
An essential dead heat at the top and the Arab Party slightly ahead of Yesh Atid. Bennet’s pro-settler party and Kahlon’s breakaway party (from Likud) were safely in 5th and 6th. The religious right parties were next followed by terribly disappointing results from Liberman’s corruption-scarred Yisrael Beitenu and the feeble dovish Meretz. Pundits immediately started doing the math to see how a coalition could be formed and whether a unity government with Likud and Zionist Union was possible. What was clear was the hopes of a left leading coalition government were in jeopardy as Bibi’s path to 61 votes was going to be a lot easier: Likud (27) + Yesh Atid (11) + Jewish Home (8) + Kulanu (10) + Shas (7) + UTJ (6) + Israel Beitenu (5). But there are no guarantees and perhaps Bibi wouldn’t be able to form the coalition. Soon the surprise and disappointment on the left would turn to horror in the morning.
Many Israelis, and me, woke the next morning to see that the actual vote was a death blow to the left and anti-Netanyahu crowds. There was no dead heat, instead Likud had clearly defeated the Zionist Camp (Union) 30-24. There would be no Herzog led coalition, there would be no unity government. Bibi had rolled the dice and disbanded his government and was rewarded with four new years and the options to form broad coalition or a narrow right wing coalition.
But what happened over the last 72 hours and how did the exit polls miss it so badly? With regards to the former, Netanyahu’s last ditch attack plan to consolidate the right under him and stoking fears got the rightist vote out in his favor. Throughout the day, voter turnout had been running on par with 2013 election results, but in the last two hours after turnout calculations ended, a spike in turnout occurred which was likely due to his plea to counter the Arab turnout numbers. This may have understated the strength in Likud’s numbers. Additionally, as America experienced in 2004, what someone tells a pollster after voting and what they actually did in the booth are not necessarily the same. When the media was reporting higher numbers for John Kerry in 2004 based on exit polls, there was cautious optimism on the left; the same phenomena was playing out in Israel on Tuesday. At the end of the day, turnout was higher than the previous four Parliamentary Elections, but well short of the 78.7% from 1999.
The bigger issue, was likely pollster bias, not personal bias, but statistical bias. As I mentioned above and throughout the week via my Tweets, Tel Aviv, while Israel’s 2nd largest city and media capital, polling results can often be swayed by oversampling and overweighting the city on the Med. Analogous to the Beltway America and the ‘Real’ America, there seems to be an Israel and a ‘Real’ Israel dynamic. The actual voting results showed Likud’s national strength versus Zionist Union’s local strength. Some examples:
Tel Aviv (highly secular)Zionist Union: 34%
Yesh Atid: 12%
Jerusalem (highly religious)Likud: 24%
Haifa (secular)Zionist Union: 25%
Yesh Atid: 11%
As expected, Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) scored well in the settler communities, Arab Joint List dominated Arab communities like Nazareth, and the Haredi (Orthodox) parties did well in the religious enclaves. But where religion and ethnic factors were not in play, Likud got the better of the Zionist Union in the smaller cities such as Netanya, Ariel, and Beersheba. Though it was interesting that the border communities hit the hardest by Gazan rockets from Hamas went out in big numbers for Herzog and the Zionist Union, but in Sderot, Likud won convincingly.
At the end of the day, the wealthy and elite went out for Zionist Union, the working class and settlers went out for Likud, and the religious went with UTJ and Shas. Some estimates believe ~200,000 settlers went and voted for Likud over Jewish Home to make sure Herzog and his Zionist Union were defeated. Take that people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000.
In hindsight, Bibi ran a better campaign, Herzog was too passive, pollsters got it wrong, the anyone-but-Bibi campaign was a failure, people voted against their own interests, and while only the size of New Jersey, Israel’s electorate is not homogenous.
In the aftermath, Netanyahu has already started to walk back his anti-two state solution rhetoric from the last days of the campaign. Israel will face increased isolation from the rest of the world. The Obama administration’s disappointment and animus toward Netanyahu could lead to problems at the UN for Israel. John Boehner will participate in a victory lap in Israel later this month, and Sarah Palin will break out her Magen David to celebrate and show off her allegiance to Bibi.
Ha’aretz contributor and author Ari Shavit questioned on election day “Will we continue to let fear rule us, or will we chose hope?” It seems the electorate chose the former, this time.