Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Election Day high noon appeal to his supporters to go out and vote to offset the “droves of Arabs” flowing to the polling stations may have played a decisive role in his victory, the country’s best-known political pollster indicated Wednesday.
Pollster Dr. Mina Tzemach told the Knesset Channel that, at noon on election day, March 17, her surveys showed Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Camp to be leading Netanyahu’s Likud by three to four seats.
Then, at 12:23 p.m., Netanyahu posted his controversial Facebook message warning that “the rule of the right is in danger,” that Arab voters were turning out in vast numbers, that they were being “bused to the polling stations by left-wing NGOs,” and that his supporters simply had to work harder to get out the vote “and close the gap.”
By 5 p.m., said Tzemach, the chief pollster for Israel’s most-watched TV station, Channel 2, the gap had indeed been closed: Herzog’s National Union and Netanyahu’s Likud were tied. And by 8 p.m., she said, Likud was ahead 28 to 26.5 seats.
In her 10 p.m. exit poll, Tzemach predicted 28 seats for Likud and 27 for National Union. The two other TV exit polls — on Channels 1 and 10 — gave Likud and National Union 27 seats each. Tzemach and other pollsters were widely derided after the elections over their faulty predictions.
Tzemach said that when she finalized her full day’s Election Day survey, at 11:30 that night, it showed Likud at 29 and Zionist Union at 23. This finding was not reported on election night, and Herzog did not immediately concede. Only in the small hours of Wednesday morning, when the actual count by the Central Elections Committee was nearing its completion, was it widely realized that the exit polls were wrong and that Likud had won by a decisive margin.
The actual result was 30 seats for Likud and 24 for National Union, and Netanyahu is now working to put together a new coalition.
Tzemach’s comments Wednesday mirrored remarks by Herzog in a Channel 2 interview on Saturday, in which he said his party’s own polls had shown him to be five seats ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud as late as noon on election day. Even when the TV exit polls showed the two parties tied, he had expected that he would be able to form a coalition, and not Netanyahu, he said. Herzog accused Netanyahu of resorting to “lies, incitement and racism” to secure his victory.
By contrast, a Republican pollster who worked on Netanyahu’s reelection campaign told a New York radio station Sunday that Likud’s internal polls augured the prime minister’s victory as early as Sunday. John McLaughlin said that despite the fact that “most Israeli media polls had Netanyahu and his Likud party losing to the left right up until the Friday… through the weekend, Netanyahu rose [in internal polls]. Our last poll [on Sunday night], we had Likud at 23% of the vote, and that’s what they got.”
Netanyahu on Monday apologized for his Election Day comments about the high Arab turnout. “I know the things I said several days ago offended some of Israel’s citizens, hurt the Arab citizens,” Netanyahu told invited representatives of the Arab community at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. “This was never my intent. I apologize for this.”
The White House has castigated Netanyahu for the comment. Spokesman Josh Earnest said, “That cynical election day tactic was a pretty transparent effort to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens and their right to participate in their democracy.”
And US President Barack Obama said, “That kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions… Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly,” the president said over the weekend. “And I think that that is what’s best about Israeli democracy. If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the name of democracy in the country.”