Israel Election: Bibi Shows His Mastery of Politics

An Israeli soldier arranges ballots in a mobile voting booth at a border police base in the West Bank near Nablus March 17, 2015. Amir Cohen/Reuters

The people of Tel Aviv woke up to a new and uncomfortable reality. We went to sleep disappointed, but still hopeful we might not have to endure another term of Benjamin Netanyahu in government. We woke up to the reality that our current prime minister will be our next prime minister—and that he won by (what is by Israeli standards) an overwhelming margin.

I was trained as a political scientist. However, I soured on the discipline when the Soviet Union began to crumble and all of the experts seemed incapable of predicting what would happen next. The predictive value of political science was suddenly shown to be an empty promise.

While covering the current Israeli election, there is no doubt that I fell into two traps: First, seeing the world or Israel through my glasses, (i.e. the Israel I wanted to see); and second, focusing and writing about the views of those living and working in Tel Aviv. Although the Tel Aviv metropolitan area is the largest city in Israel and represents an overwhelming percentage of the country's economy, what I see and hear on its streets does not reflect Israel at large—it merely echoes the opinions from what is euphemistically referred to as "the Tel Aviv bubble."

In my defense, I must say that the science of poll-taking and the mathematics of statistics took a significant hit last night. I am not sure I remember a recent time when exit polls were so inaccurate. Last night, the two major parties were reportedly at parity (27- 27). This morning, now that the nearly final results are in, the Likud holds 29 seats and the Zionist Camp 24. Most of the other results stayed the same as forecast in the initial exit polls.

However, since the Likud and Zionist Camp showings were the key numbers being followed, the error is very significant. These same pollsters showed the Zionist Camp ahead by an average of 3.5 seats only four days before the elections. If their earlier polling was accurate, that means there was a swing of nearly 10 seats—all in favor of the Likud (the Zionist camp did not lose any support from the early polls).

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Turnout was high in the close contest between Isaac Herzog and Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Israeli pundits will be asking themselves how much of that swing was from the campaign Netanyahu pulled off during the last four days of the campaign, or, conversely, how much of the gap is a reflection of polling errors.

Looking at the overall results, very little changed between the different voting blocs. The left, right and center each received almost the same number of votes as in the 2013 election. It is the distribution within the blocs that shifted. No one should be surprised.

Very little has changed since 2013. The opposition ran a mediocre campaign. They were convinced the population was tired of being governed by Netanyahu. Although Israelis continually told pollsters that they were going to vote their pocket book, Netanyahu seems to have known better. The prime minister was the smarter politician, who knew that Israelis would ultimately vote their fears and not their hopes.

Netanyahu perfectly played on those fears in the last four days of the campaign, was willing to say and do anything to stoke them and decisively won a fourth term. While future historians will have to decide what place Netanyahu will hold in the pantheon of Israeli and Jewish leaders, one thing seems clear—last night the prime minister cemented his place as Israel's greatest politician.

Historian Marc Schulman is the editor of