In the Israeli elections on Tuesday, an Arab party whose voters were primarily Arab Israelis won 13 parliamentary seats out of 120. The other 107 seats were divided among primarily Jewish Israeli voters.
Of those 107 seats, 24 went to Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s left-wing Zionist Camp, five to the far-left Meretz, and 11 to Future (Yesh Atid), a center-left party—for a total of 40 votes for the left-wing camp.
The other 67 votes all went to right-wing and center-right parties, with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud far ahead of the pack at 30 seats.
In other words, among the predominantly Jewish voters, the right beat the left 67-40. This is known as a landslide.
It’s a particularly dramatic landslide for a couple of reasons. One is that Netanyahu had already served two consecutive terms, as well as a term in the late 1990s. The conventional wisdom was that Israelis were “tired of him” and looking for a change.
The other reason is that Netanyahu was subjected to a massive, unprecedented, both domestic and foreign campaign to oust him. Largely ad hominem, the campaign portrayed him as a demon who had wrecked Israel’s economy, security, and foreign relations, and, moreover—along with his wife Sarah, also a major target of the vilification—had recklessly squandered public money at his official residences.
Within Israel, most of the media, disgruntled former security officials, a disgruntled former groundskeeper, the NGO community, and of course the political opposition waged the campaign against Netanyahu. Abroad, European governments channeled funds to Israel’s anti-Netanyahu camp, and the Obama administration is under Senate investigation for doing the same.
All that, combined with certain real problems for Israelis like sky-high housing prices and obviously strained, difficult relations with Washington, along with polls consistently showing the left-wing Zionist Camp taking a lead over Likud, led to reports that “Netanyahu is in trouble” and speculations about a unity government or even a left-wing win.
Why, then, did the results differ so diametrically from the conventional wisdom?
Three factors, in ascending order of importance.
1. In the last days before the elections, Netanyahu himself waged an unprecedented blitz of media interviews along with mass emails, text messages, and phone calls to get Israelis to vote for his Likud Party, warning that otherwise the left could actually win.
The main effect, however, was to pull votes away from the smaller right-wing parties to Netanyahu’s Likud. Netanyahu may also have influenced some undecided voters, but his brief blitz hardly accounts for such a lopsided outcome.
2. The Israeli left has not won an election since 1999, and the explanation is partly demographic.
Mizrahi (of Middle Eastern origin) Israelis, at least early generations of Russian immigrants, and particularly religious Israelis tend to the right, and now form a larger cut of the pie than the established secular Ashkenazi (of European origin) Israelis who tend to the left. That underlying demographic reality partly accounts for the desperate fury of the anti-Netanyahu camp’s efforts.
3. Back in the 1990s, however, when the overall Israeli demography wasn’t so different from today’s, the left was able to win a couple of elections by projecting a “peace” message to a war-weary public. The key factor is that, compared to those days, Israel has matured and rejects the left’s message that it can actually get along with everyone if only horrendous right-wing leaders like Netanyahu are removed.
Instead Israelis have shed any illusions about the violent, unstable Middle Eastern environment, and know that the left’s territorial withdrawals have brought blood rather than peace.
None of this will stop the Obama administration, the New York Times, the UN, and the rest of the pack from vilifying Israel for supposedly turning its back on the “two-state solution” and hence on “peace.” In reality, last summer Israel buried dozens of its sons killed in a war launched by the Palestinian state of Gaza, and Israelis know the difference between war and peace much better than their detractors. Opposing a further territorial withdrawal because you’re certain it will lead to war is not a rejection of peace.
But with Netanyahu apparently set to form a right-wing government without, this time, a leftish party or two as a fig leaf, the forces that are incapable of respecting Israelis and their electoral preferences, and of looking beyond hostile clichés at the real Israel and the challenges its face, are sure to step up their efforts. That’s why Israel will be needing as much support as possible from its real friends.