Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

More Post-Election Analysis from Israel

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Update from AIJAC

March 20, 2015
Number 03/15 #04

Here is some more good analysis of the Israeli election on Tuesday and the unexpectedly strong win by incumbent PM Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. The final results of the election, announced yesterday, divides the 120-member Knesset as follows:

  • Likud: 30
  • Zionist Union: 24
  • Joint List: 13
  • Yesh Atid: 11
  • Kulanu: 10
  • Jewish Home: 8
  • Shas: 7
  • Yisrael Beiteinu: 6
  • United Torah Judaism: 6
  • Meretz: 5

A good discussion of the possible coalition configurations suggested by this outcome comes from Ben Sales of the JTA.

This Update features further analysis of the various aspects of this result.

First up is American expert Jonathan Schanzer on why so many pundits and pollsters, especially abroad, got their predictions about the result so badly wrong. He explains that even Israeli experts often are mistaken, because of the complexities of the Israeli system, where votes for parties then affect coalition arrangements to elect a prime minister and cabinet, and its differences to other political systems experts are more used to. He notes that even Israelis often do not fully understand the implications of their vote - if they consider voting for a smaller party which may or may not be in the governing coalition, whether that will affect who becomes PM, and if so how? Schanzer suggests Netanyahu is perhaps one of the few who fully understands how to work the system, which he showed in the emphatic victory this week. For this useful analysis. CLICK HERE. Haaretz asks the pollsters and other experts why even the exit polls were so far off, here.

Next up is Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel on the failure of the Israeli left to do as well as they had hoped in this election, and the lessons they will need to draw in order to do better in future. He notes that the despair exhibited by many on the Israeli left is unwarranted, they actually achieved some real gains in this poll, but they need to do more of what Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog did during the election and reach out more to various constituencies that have too often been written off by the left - not only during the campaign, but throughout the year. In particular, it needs to be recognised that the Israeli public "are distrustful of peace initiatives or Iran deals", not because of right-wing "fear-mongering" but because there are genuine reasons to be fearful of both, and the left needs to directly address those fears. For his full analysis, with many more useful insights into the election generally, CLICK HERE.

Finally, American law professor and pundit Alan Dershowitz calls on those who blame Netanyahu and Israeli voters for the current peace process impasse to address the ways in which the Palestinian side has contributed to this result. He notes the history of Israel offering two-state peace deals to the Palestinian Authority without successfully getting close to a "yes", and the current wider regional turmoil  and the history of the efforts to stop a nuclear Iran and notes "If Israelis voted their fears, these were not entirely irrational fears; they were based on the history of the region." He says many of those critical of the result need to "look at a videotape of the last 15 years" and seek a better outcome by affecting both the Iranian negotiations and the Palestinian path of unilateralism and avoiding serious negotiations. For all of his argument, CLICK HERE.

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Why the Media Always Get Israeli Elections Wrong

The electoral system is so brutally complex that even voters don't often understand it.

Politico, March 18, 2015

The era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [is] coming to an end,” read one Reuters headline. Similarly, Slate declared Netanyahu to be “Israel’'s Sore Loser,” explaining that “he has botched his re-election the same way he has botched everything else.” Hundreds of other news items and analytical articles in recent weeks prophesied the demise of Israel’'s embattled prime minister.

Today, of course, a triumphant Netanyahu is laying plans for a new government, and the media should be asking themselves why they tend to make the same sort of Dewey-Defeats-Truman mistakes, cycle after cycle, about Israeli elections. During the last round in 2013, the New Yorker’s David Remnick proclaimed that “the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left and the vivid and growing strength of the radical right.” Remnick was not alone, either. Pundits across the board predicted the meteoric rise of right-wing politician Naftali Bennett. Indeed, this was going to be the “Darth Bennett” government. In the end, Bennett’s party, Jewish Home, mustered only 12 seats in the Knesset, while centrist Yair Lapid played a far more pivotal role in the formation of Netanyahu’'s government.

It’s a small consolation, perhaps, that observers outside of Israel aren’t the only ones who often can’t predict what the political system there will do. Israeli experts often get their predictions badly wrong too. A lot of that has to do with polling data that doesn’t ever tell the full picture. But there is a lot more to it than that.

Western analysts often view the Israeli parliamentary system through the prism of our own very different system and turn it into a binary equation. We vote blue or we vote red. We vote for one politician or the other. Undecided voters ultimately weigh their priorities and vote their conscience.

But that'’s checkers, while Israeli voters and politicians must play chess. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that Israeli voters don’t always fully appreciate the implication of the voting game they’re playing. Every vote in their multi-party system is a rather grueling gambit. If they vote for the party they truly like and support, they may not get the government they desire. For example, for those who support the peace process, a vote for the leftist Meretz party might mean fewer seats for the center-left Labor party’'s Isaac Herzog, who is the Israeli politician with arguably the best chance of jump-starting diplomacy. Similarly, for security hawks, a vote for rightist politician Avigdor Liberman might mean fewer seats for Netanyahu and his center-right Likud party, which is best suited to pursue a security agenda. Netanyahu himself appeared to be playing this game very late on election day Tuesday, when he posted a warning on Facebook that Likud needed to peel away allegiance from the smaller right-wing parties.

Israeli voters understand this dynamic. They are aware that their votes have consequences well beyond the simple numbers of seats each party gains. But it is impossible for them to foresee how their votes will impact the final tally. They simply cannot know what impact their vote will have on the ultimate composition of the government. It is for this reason that an estimated 10 percent of Israeli voters are undecided on the day of elections. One could argue that Israeli voters are undecided even after they cast a ballot.

The complexity of the Israeli system has often prompted pollsters to ask two key questions ahead of elections: Which party will you vote for? And who do you want to see as prime minister? The answer is not always the same. And this was apparently one of the indicators that gave Team Netanyahu hope, even as the eulogies for the prime minister began to appear in high-profile publication after publication. Indeed, fortunes can change overnight for Israeli politicians. And in this case, they did.

The Israeli system has not always been this way. The Israelis, between 1996 and 2003, experimented with a system whereby voters could cast one ballot for their prime minister and another for their party. But as my colleague Emanuele Ottolenghi explains, this encouraged ticket-splitting. “Many voters rejected Labor and Likud Knesset candidates, opting instead for smaller parties with sharper issue profiles, leaving the two big parties with less bargaining power than ever.” The system created inherently unstable governments, so lawmakers reverted to the one vote system, making it somewhat easier for the bigger vote-getters to bring together the 61 out of 120 Knesset seats to form a government.

The revised system hasn’t exactly made things more stable in recent years. We continue to watch governments crumble every two years—short of a full four-year term—because of intra-coalition squabbles.

But even coalition politics appear to be lost on Western observers. As polls showed that Netanyahu’s numbers were flagging, and the premature schadenfreude began to build, analysts failed to note that Netanyahu could lose the battle by failing to gain the most seats but still win the war by being in a position to pull together enough right-wing coalition members from other parties for Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to assign him the task of forming a government.

Despite a herd mentality that has produced two straight elections’ worth of failed analysis, few have had the integrity to admit they were wrong. Business Insider’s Armin Rosen is a rare breed. As the results trickled in, he admitted on Twitter, “Man, I wrote some profoundly wrong [stuff] about the Israeli election today.”

As Netanyahu sets out to build his new government—one that could just as easily include or exclude parties from the left – we are reminded there are just too many reasons not to put our trust in Israeli polls and predictions. Yet the media’s familiarity with Israel’s open system has bred a false sense of understanding, which is sometimes exacerbated by flawed polls. And, in the case of Netanyahu, who is roundly loathed by the American left, that lack of understanding could very easily be influenced by contempt and hope for his demise.

Editors should be cringing at what passed for news last week. Maybe a few corrections will be issued. Perhaps a few clarifications, too. But if there’s takeaway for them, it is this: The biennial “Running of the Israel Experts” is dangerous. Many get gored. Few walk away without a scratch. And even fewer seem to understand very well how the Israeli electoral system works.

One of them, perhaps, is Bibi Netanyahu.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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After electoral trouncing, what future for the Israeli left?

A lot of lessons can be gleaned from Tuesday’s results. Some of them might be uncomfortable

BY HAVIV RETTIG GUR

Times of Israel, March 18, 2015, 2:26 pm 78

A lot of groups are licking their wounds after Likud’'s trouncing of the Labor-led Zionist Union on Tuesday.

The Israeli left, to be sure, did better than it has done in almost a generation. It rallied around the Labor party, energized the base, sent thousands of volunteers to “get out the vote.”

And it lost. Spectacularly.

In the process, politicians, pundits, pollsters and analysts learned some important lessons – not just in humility, but also in the changing face of the Israeli electorate.

The right learned that Likud is its great indispensable party, the big tent to which it rallies in times of danger. That ethos of underlying unity among the usually bickering factions of the right headed off on Tuesday the left’s most potent challenge in almost two decades. It won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

We all learned that the right knows how to get out the vote. Or, at least, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does. His method was simple: talk incessantly about the turnout of the enemy – the left, the Arabs, the shadowy foreign funding behind it all. It wasn’t exactly a noble or honest final few days in Likud’s campaign, but it worked.

Overall turnout spiked in this election, and the smart money held that this rise would favor the left. It was leftists, after all, who have been missing from previous elections. But in the wake of Likud'’s stunning surge in the final count, a surge predicted by no poll and no pollster, the simple fact is inescapable: right-wingers came out to vote, right-wingers who haven’t bothered to vote in recent elections, right-wingers who did not like or support Netanyahu -— all felt compelled to save Israel from the prospect of a left-wing victory. In last two hours of voting, a two-point turnout jump over 2013 swelled to a five-point spike. That rush, it’s now fair to say, was of right-wing voters delivering the first “election surprise” of the right.

Each election in recent memory has had an Election Day surprise. The Pensioners Party soared to 7 on Election Day in 2006 after polling two. Yesh Atid hit 19 on Election Day after polling at perhaps 14. But these surprises have only ever happened on the center and left. No longer. Likud pulled off its own surprise, and it did so by winning the turnout race.

Why did turnout rise so dramatically? Simple: the majority of the Israeli electorate continues to distrust the left’s judgment. It is a trust deficit rooted in a more general distrust of Palestinian intentions, of the Obama White House and other touchstones of left-wing policy. In hindsight, it may be one of the bitter ironies of this campaign that Labor’s own slogan, “It’s us or him,” may have done as much to guarantee Netanyahu victory as anything Netanyahu may have done.

And that brings us to what the left can learn from this race. The despair emanating from left-wing voters and pundits is misplaced. The left did better in this election than it has done in a long time. But the left has spent almost two decades essentially writing off the electorate as too benighted, too trapped in fear or hate to be worth seriously campaigning for. That, at least, has been the explanation of left-wing media outlets such as Haaretz over the years for Benjamin Netanyahu'’s continued triumphs at the ballot box. The path to reclaiming an electorate one has ridiculed and despised for so long is a hard one. But, alas, the left will not actually lead Israel without the support of a majority of Israelis. Isaac Herzog is the first leader of the left in quite a few years who seems to understand that.

Luckily for the left, the sun will rise on Thursday morning, and again on Friday, and every day next week too. And eventually, probably sooner rather than later given Israel’s recent history, this new government will fall. Politics do not end in any single defeat.

One of the more long-term questions that arise from this race is whether the left will be able to use this loss as a catalyst for future victory. If, as has been its wont, the left falls back on its traditional rhetoric depicting Netanyahu’'s Israel as wracked by famine, poverty and war, and facing imminent collapse, then it will be setting itself up for continued failure. Such talk is hard to take seriously when battling an election; it would be truly dangerous to take it seriously after losing one. The left now needs to build on its success, find new constituencies, develop a “ground game” not just in the two months before an election but in the three years that separate them. Despair will not get it from where it is now to where it needs to be to win.

Finally, the world’s professional Israel watchers, journalists, pundits, think tank analysts, should (but probably won’t) learn an important lesson from this race about Israelis. A recurring theme on the Twitter accounts of foreign correspondents – at least of the overwhelming majority whose opinion of Netanyahu is not favorable – is that Netanyahu won the election through “fear-mongering.”

It is true that Netanyahu explicitly “fear-mongered,” and that this won him his steep lead on Tuesday. But Netanyahu’s international critics fundamentally misunderstand his audience, his electorate, and so deeply misconstrue what exactly he was “fear-mongering” about.

Netanyahu’'s critics insist that he fear-mongered about Iran and the Palestinians. He did not -– because he doesn’t have to. The Israeli electorate has long ago written off Palestinian politicians as untrustworthy and unable to deliver peace. And it is Iran, not Netanyahu, that has convinced nearly all Israelis from all parts of the political spectrum that Iran is a very real danger to Israel.

All Netanyahu had to do was to warn, at times in blatantly racist terms, that the left and Arab voters were “turning out in droves.” His fear-mongering was not on the substance of the disagreement with the left –- the electorate already mistrusts the left’s judgment on these issues – but simply to warn that the left might win. That alone spiked the Likud vote, even in the cold late-evening hours of Election Day.

The assumption behind the “fear-mongering” accusation is that Netanyahu is the reason Israelis are distrustful of peace initiatives or Iran deals. It is a convenient conceit, suggesting that if one could get rid of Netanyahu the problem would be solved, but it is entirely wrong. The White House'’s or European Union’'s policy feuds with Netanyahu are not actually with Netanyahu himself, but with the mainstream Israeli electorate that responded so forcefully on Tuesday when they were finally convinced that their country might soon be forced into dangerous new concessions or compromises in a precarious Middle East.

The election turned from a near-rout of the right predicted in poll after poll by the entire panoply of Israeli pollsters into one of the right’s most dramatic victories in decades. The lessons abound: shifting turnout meant that geography didn’t quite play its expected role, settlers switched en masse to Likud even as they disappeared as a pressure group in Likud’s primaries, and the V15 campaign probably ended up mobilizing more rightists than leftists on Election Day.

But the main lesson is also the most obvious one. The left did better on Tuesday than it has in a long time. Yet it only really took its first step on the long road to rehabilitation and victory.

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

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The Role of the Palestinian Authority in Israel's Election Results

At least twice over the last 15 years, Israel has offered the Palestinians extraordinarily generous two-state solutions. The first time was in 2000-2001 when Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton offered the Palestinians more than 90% of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip, with a capital in Jerusalem. Yassir Arafat turned down the offer and started an intifada, in which 4000 people were killed. This self-inflicted wound by the leader of the PA contributed greatly to the weakening of Israel's peace camp, most particularly of Ehud Barak's Labor party. The current Zionist Camp party, which is an offshoot of Labor, has continued to suffer from that weakening.

Then again, in 2007, Ehud Olmert offered the Palestinians an even more generous resolution, to which Mahmoud Abbas failed to respond positively. This failure also contributed to the weakening of the Israeli center-left and the strengthening of the right.

Israel is a vibrant democracy, in which people vote their experience, their fear and their hope. In 2000-2001 and 2007, most Israelis had high hopes for a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian conflict. These hopes were dashed by Arafat's rejection and Abbas' refusal to accept generous peace offers. It is not surprising therefore, that so many Israelis now vote their fear instead of their hope.

The Obama administration also contributed to the election results in Israel by refusing to listen to Israeli concerns -- concerns shared by Israelis of every political stripe -- about the impending deal with Iran. Many Israelis have given up any hope of influencing the Obama administration to demand more from the Iranians. The current deal contains a sunset provision which all but guarantees that Iran will have nuclear weapons within a decade. Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog made a serious mistake when he said he trusted President Obama to make a good deal with the Iranians. Few Israelis share that trust, as do few members of Congress, and few Sunni Arab governments. That lack of trust was reflected in voting for a Prime Minister who has been more confrontational and less trusting.

If Israelis voted their fears, these were not entirely irrational fears; they were based on the history of the region.

The international community, academics and the media tend to have short memories. They will blame Netanyahu, and especially his campaign rhetoric, for a result of which they disapprove. But Netanyahu's rhetoric found a receptive audience because many Israeli voters have long memories. They remember what the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, the Obama administration, the Iranian mullahs and the United Nations have done and said with regard to Israel. They remember the lethal responses to earlier peace offers.

So let's not look at a snapshot of these election results. Instead, let's look at a videotape of the last 15 years in order to understand how Israel's democracy produced the current election results.

Only time will tell whether these results will engender a better resolution of the Iranian threat, the Palestinian stalemate and other issues of concern to the world. But history has shown that positive results can never be achieved by directing pressure unilaterally at the Israeli government, and not at the Palestinian Authority, the Iranian mullahs, the Obama administration and the international community.

Already, the spokespersons for the PA have predicted that the reelection of Netanyahu marks the end of any realistic peace process, without reminding their listeners of how Palestinian intransigence marked the end of earlier peace processes and impacted this election. They are once again threatening to bring their grievances to the International Criminal Court and other international institutions, which would surely be a setback to any realistic prospects for a resolution.

So instead of casting the blame on Netanyahu and the Israeli right for all the problems of the Middle East, let all sides look at themselves in the mirror of reality and decide how they can contribute to making the world a safer place, by preventing Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear arsenal and by encouraging a compromise resolution of the Palestinian issue that protects Israel's security while providing the Palestinians with a viable, demilitarized state.

  • Follow Alan M. Dershowitz on Twitter

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