A few short days after surveys indicated that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may lose his bid to be re-elected, his Likud party was alone at the top of the polls and poised to assemble a coalition government with his nationalist allies.
Many were stunned by Netanyahu’s abrupt turn-around in fortunes. Our mistake was that we focused on one possible scenario from the last set of polls: that there was a good chance that the opposition Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog would lead the next governing coalition.
Less attention was paid to a scenario in which Netanyahu could still readily assemble a coalition even if his party failed to become the largest party in the Knesset. Commentators and voters alike, though, focused on the prospect that Netanyahu might not get that chance if the Zionist Union could first persuade a motley group of centrist parties to join with them and other parties on the left to form a coalition.
Netanyahu was not comfortable with that possibility. After all, this was an election he chose to call last fall when he fired two coalition partners. Going to the polls early was a calculated move to consolidate his support. Netanyahu was confident that at least two of his coalition partners would be weaker than they were after the 2013 election. Netanyahu also knew that if he waited too long, Likud would likely lose some popularity when the parliament would release a report about the summer’s war in the Gaza Strip that is widely expected to be damning. His coalition allies to his right already were complaining that he had not been tough enough on Hamas and hostilities would inevitably resume.
The first months of the campaign closely followed Netanyahu’s script. Netanyahu consolidated his control over the Likud Party by ensuring that several of his closest allies received high spots on the party’s list when it held primary elections, while engineering the defeat of some internal critics. Then, the leadership of one of his allied parties was indicted on corruption charges, further boosting Likud’s base of support. It was hard to imagine a more fortuitous campaign for Netanyahu even as his opponents on the left attacked him over social issues like the high cost of housing in Israel’s major metropolitan areas. The Likud’s campaign responded to its critics on the left by arguing that there was not much point worrying about social issues if life itself was threatened by enemies like the Islamic State, Hamas and Iran.
When the Republicans in Congress invited Netanyahu to come speak about negotiations with Iran, Netanyahu accepted the invitation in order to keep a significant portion of the Israeli electorate focused on the Iranian threat. The controversy over Netanyahu’s speech, and his obstinacy in the face of political pressure to cancel his talk, only furthered Netanyahu’s political goals because the whole hubbub focused attention on Netanyahu’s commitment to oppose Iranian nuclear ambitions. The controversy overshadowed news coverage of a corruption scandal involving his own residence.
Netanyahu’s problem was that after the speech, attention was no longer focused on the Iranian threat. An electorate no longer focused on Iran looked at other issues to the detriment of Likud. The Likud slipped in the polls, from about 20 per cent to about 17 per cent of the vote.
This slide opened the door for the possibility that the left would form the next government. While the international media focused on the race between Netanyahu and Herzog, Netanyahu turned to voters on the right. He knew that few voters were deliberating between him and Herzog. Instead, most Israeli voters choose between ideologically similar parties within either the nationalist bloc on the right or the dovish bloc on the left. A smaller number vote for religious or secular parties in the centre that might pull from either camp by emphasizing issues other than security. So, Netanyahu fought for right-wing nationalist voters who might otherwise support his closest allies in parliament
With only days to go in the campaign, the Likud campaign that already featured the slogan, “It’s either us or them,” did not so much change strategy as doubled-down. Netanyahu warned voters that their lives, their holy capital and their West Bank communities were at risk from a variety of enemies if the left came to power.
By reminding nationalist voters that the only way to prevent Herzog from forming a government was to vote for the Likud, Netanyahu succeeded by poaching support from his closest allies. In 2013, the nationalist bloc won 43 seats. The Friday before the election, polls predicted that four parties in the bloc would maintain that total. On election day, these parties won 44 seats. The difference between the actual vote in 2015, the pre-election polls and the results in 2013 was that Likud won a much larger share of the bloc than the polls predicted. Netanyahu’s rhetoric also won the votes of some citizens who told the pollsters they were unlikely to cast votes. Only a few voters appear to have switched their vote to Netanyahu, mainly from religious parties in the centre to the Likud.
Those who interpret the results as indicative of a dramatic shift to the right in Israeli politics are mistaken. The right is just as numerous as it was in 2013 and while assured of continuing to lead the government, it will still have to make compromises to assemble a majority coalition.
Renan Levine is a lecturer at the department of political science, University of Toronto, Scarborough.