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.