Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

What Americans Need to Understand About Israel’s Election Results

Here’s what the media and pollsters fail to get about Bibi’s enduring appeal

Liel Leibovitz
April 10, 2019
Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by his wife, Sara, greets supporters on election night at his Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv early on April 10, 2019. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by his wife, Sara, greets supporters on election night at his Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv early on April 10, 2019. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

The votes have yet to be counted in full—more than 200,000 are still to be tallied, which could make a big difference for parties like the New Right struggling to make it into the Knesset—but a few truths about Israel’s election are hard to ignore:

The Polls Really Don’t Work: At 10 p.m. on election night, Mina Tzemach, Israel’s most prominent pollster, unveiled her eagerly anticipated prediction, putting Benny Gantz far ahead of Benjamin Netanyahu. It didn’t take long to realize the extent of her error, or, for that matter, the stunning inaccuracy of nearly every other poll that shaped and informed the debate leading up to election day. Moshe Feiglin, whose Zehut party was slated to score as many as seven seats, was out; Avigdor Lieberman, who was left for dead by most prognosticators, won bigly. The reason may be as much technological as it is political: Reaching most of their respondents online or via cellphone, pollsters are inherently biased toward overrepresenting the sort of people who are comfortable taking an online survey or chatting to a stranger about politics. As Tuesday’s results showed, vast swaths of the population—haredis, say, or immigrants from the former Soviet Union—had far less in the pre-election pas-de-deux of opinion surveys, which is why they ended up turning out in far larger numbers than anyone predicted, reelecting Lieberman and giving haredi parties a very strong showing with 16 seats. This fact is unlikely to change, making polling, long a staple of the political game, an increasingly questionable tool in a society where many reject technology’s pervasive reach.

Tel Aviv Really Is a Bubble: In Ramat Aviv, the city’s posh northern neighborhood—home to its university and much of the media class who edit newspapers, anchor newscasts, and publish books—the center-left bloc, comprised of Blue-White, Meretz, and Labor, won a whopping 80% of the votes. Four point three miles to the southeast, in the city’s struggling Shchunat Hatikvah neighborhood, Likud and Shas won 64% of the votes, a much more accurate reflection of the national zeitgeist. The same is true in virtually every other corner of the country: In Caesarea, the wealthy seaside town where the Netanyahus have a home, most people voted for Gantz; in Rosh Ha’Ayin, the working class small town where Gantz lives, most people voted for Netanyahu.

The Old Labor-Left Really Is Dead: In 1992, the year before the Oslo Accords were introduced with much fanfare, Labor and Meretz, the twin pillars of the Zionist left, won a staggering 66 seats in the Knesset, giving them a strong mandate to pursue their peace plans. This week, Labor and Meretz eked out a combined 10 seats, far less than the haredi parties, which won 16, and exactly the same as the two Arab parties, Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad. Considering the fact that Gantz’s party, Kachol-Lavan, had very few, if any, substantive disagreements with Netanyahu’s Likud, the meaning of this is stark and simple: The left, as it has existed for generations, is thoroughly, unequivocally, and irreversibly dead. Having run for decades on poses rather than policies, it failed to produce a coherent answer to the question that was foremost in most Israelis’ minds, namely what to do when the so-called partner for peace, the Palestinian Authority, giddily and unabashedly cheered on and paid for the murder of innocent Israelis. Instead, the left talked about identity politics—a favorite of Meretz’s new leader, Tamar Zandberg—and invested more and more of its communal resources in addressing audiences in Berlin, London, and New York but not in Netanya, Petach Tikva, and Be’er Sheva. It’s likely that the slew of NGOs that make up the contemporary left’s beating heart—many with robust funding from European governments and other foreign sources like George Soros’ Open Society Foundations—will continue to campaign anywhere but at home, with the political parties that support them continuing to pay the price.

It Really Doesn’t Pay for the Right to Break Ranks: There were many reasons behind Naftali Bennett’s decision to leave his former party, Jewish Home, and form his current one, the New Right, but the key one was Bennett’s desire to form a hipper alternative to Netanyahu, whom he dislikes. Like so many of the American right’s Never Trumpers, he made his distaste for the leader his leading point of distinction, and ran a campaign that emphasized his slick mastery of media, releasing one viral video after another and trying to appeal to a younger, more urbane demographic than the unhip yarmulke-clad crowd that had traditionally supported him. It backfired spectacularly: Most right-wing Israelis preferred the plain-spoken approach of Bennett’s successor in Jewish Home, Rafi Peretz, and valued Peretz’s willingness to take difficult measures like temporarily uniting with the Otzma Yehudit faction despite its far-right approach. Peretz was everything Bennett wasn’t: Unexciting, disinterested in trying to pass as cool, reluctant to break ranks with Netanyahu, his camp’s natural leader. As a result, Peretz will most likely become something else that Bennett will no longer be: a cabinet minister.

Bibi Really Is a Political Genius: Anyone doubting Bibi’s political prowess should do little but look at the numbers of seats Likud won in recent elections. In 2003, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, the party enjoyed a robust 38 seats; in 2006, with Netanyahu back at the helm, the number dropped to 12. It was 27 in 2009, 31 in 2013, and 30 in 2015. It now stands at 35, and may very well grow. This means that Netanyahu has successfully maintained his party as a cohesive, coherent political powerhouse, growing its influence from year to year. Labor teamed up with Tzipi Livni and then broke off the deal; Sharon quit to start Kadima; Yair Lapid joined Benny Gantz; the Arab parties ran together and then apart. Netanyahu alone was a capable custodian not only of national security and the economy, but also of his party’s stability; when other candidates hoped to attract voters by presenting themselves as the new and exciting flavor of the month, Netanyahu offered them something much more valuable: a long-term relationship. Like every long-term relationship, it was rocky and often imperfect. But it offered precisely the sort of emotional gratification and sense of confidence no tall and handsome stranger could ever conjure.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.