Israel Election: Bibi Has Failed to Connect

Netanyahu, trailing in opinion polls two days before a parliamentary election, on Sunday implored right-wing voters to turn out and "stop a left-wing government from coming to power." Baz Ratner/Reuters

Tomorrow morning, polls will open for election day here in Tel Aviv and throughout Israel. At this point it is anyone's guess what the election results may be. Polling data shows 10 percent of the electorate remain undecided. I believe the percentage of undecided voters may in fact be even higher, since at this moment, the number of people I have spoken to who are still trying to decide is staggering.

Perhaps that should not be a surprise. For most Israelis, this election raised the question of who to vote against, rather than who to vote for. Other than voters on the far right, who would probably be enthusiastic seating the leader of the right-wing, religious political party The Jewish Home, MK Naftali Bennett, as prime minister, most of the rest of the Israeli electorate, whether supporting the Likud, or the Zionist Camp, or for Kachlon's Kulanu party, or Meretz, are not voting because they are enthusiastic about their candidates. Most Israelis are going out to vote because they do not want the other candidates to win.

This election has brought to light several strange contrasts. As it has become clear that after six years of the prime ministership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu there is truly a chance that the government might change, the electorate across the spectrum have become energized. Other than a few who choose to protest by not voting, it is rare to find anyone saying, "I do not care," or, "I don't have the time to vote tomorrow."

The fact that tomorrow is a national holiday helps. Tomorrow there is no school and no work for anyone—with the exception of restaurateurs and others who cater to a nation having a day off. Tomorrow's forecast calls for beautiful weather, and voter turnout will be large.

A number of observations are worth making. First, there can be no doubt that Netanyahu rues his decision to call for new elections. To this day, it is not clear why he decided to end his third term early and call for these elections. When he made the call, polling data was favorable toward him. However, most political observers stated at the time that when you call for new elections you never know how they will turn out. In fact, Israeli history has not been kind to prime ministers who call for early elections.

What is also clear about this election campaign has been the total disconnect between the electorate and the campaign run by Netanyahu. The prime minister decided to focus his campaign around the threat from Iran, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis have indicated, time and again, that their main concerns are social and economic. Netanyahu decided to ignore that fact and up until now his choice has hurt him in all the polls.

Furthermore, the Likud is the only party not to publish a platform and has been unwilling to answer any questions posed to it by the press on socioeconomic issues. In the summer of 2011, 1 million Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living and other related matters. The protest petered out over the course of the year that followed but continued on-line and below the surface. If Netanyahu loses, it will because he chose not to address these central issues.

The issue of war and peace has simply not resonated in this campaign. Whether Iran, the Palestinians, or ISIS, Israelis collectively seem to be saying: with the Arab world in such flux, let's deal with domestic matters now.

There is a sense that the rhetoric of the extremes may not be working. Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who has seen his support evaporate over the course of the last several months, has been running and ever more racist campaign in a desperate attempt to hold on to his base. MK Eli Yishai, who broke from the Shas party, has been running a similar campaign. Both Leiberman and Yishai are struggling to get enough votes to pass the higher threshold for entrance into the Knesset required.

Meanwhile, Meretz, the Zionist left-wing party, is struggling to hold on to its voters (who are either going to vote for the Zionist Camp, to try to ensure it is the largest party, or for the Joint List, a combination of all the Arab parties). The Joint List, led by Ayman Odeh, has done its best to present a moderate voice to its voters, promoting itself as an antidote to some of the racism in the country.

If Netanyahu does win, it will be as a result of his successful vilification of the left wing, playing on the fears of at least part of his base. On Sunday night, Tel Aviv hosted a large rally, orchestrated by the parties of the right, filled with people who were bussed in from the settlements and other parts of Israel (with very few locals participating).

The prevailing sense at the rally, where Netanyahu spoke, was that we cannot—under any circumstances—allow the left to prevail. Talking to several rally participants there seemed to be a shared cognitive dissonance between their expressed view (i.e. that the only hope for Israel is for all Jews to be united) and their continued attempts to delegitimize their political opponents on the left. That disparaging accusatory approach was present in Netanyahu's speech. Once again, he claimed that foreign governments were working tirelessly to overthrow him. An absence of facts does not seem to interfere with Netanyahu's telling and retelling of any story he hopes will mobilize his base and bring voters back to the Likud.

Three final things to watch:

1) For the first time there is an ultra-Orthodox women's party running. This party barely registers in the polling results, but there is a chance they could pull off a surprise in the election, since potential voters for this party would never reveal their intention to poll takers.

2) There is the question of turnout. While turnout is always important in any election, (any political "pro" knows how important the ground game is on election day), with three parties on the edge of having enough votes to enter the Knesset (i.e. Yishai's Yachad, Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, and MK Zehava Galon's Meretz), a very high voter turnout might keep one, or even all of them out of the running. The mathematical and electoral consequences of any or all of these parties being pushed out of the Knesset are complicated and very hard to predict—especially if more than one party fails to receive the requisite threshold of votes.

3) In every Israeli election there is always one surprise. In speaking to people over the course of the past 24 hours, my sense is that one surprise is going to be a strong showing in favor of Moshe Kachlon's Kulanu party. Kachlon is a former Likudnik who is going to attract a surprising number of last minute voters. These are voters who want change but cannot bring themselves to vote for Herzog, but who would be happy with with Kachlon joining a Herzog-led coalition.

By 10 p.m. Israel time we will have the results of the exit polls, but it is most unlikely we will know who the next prime minister will be. The need for parties to pass the requisite threshold will make the exit polling data more difficult to interpret.

In addition, and probably most importantly, Israeli governments are always coalition governments. Whatever the results, no party will have a ruling majority. Therefore, it will be up to the candidates to build coalitions that will together give the support of 61 members of the Israeli Knesset. It is a process that could take months.

Historian Marc Schulman is the editor of An archive of his recent reports from Tel-Aviv can be found here.

Israel Election: Bibi Has Failed to Connect | Opinion