Despite spin, municipal elections unlikely to predict national political trends

Parties across the spectrum rush to boast of ‘growing power,’ but experts say few conclusions can be drawn nationally: ‘At the end of the day, local politics is local politics’

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Ballots ahead of the Jerusalem municipal elections, at a warehouse in Jerusalem on February 22, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ballots ahead of the Jerusalem municipal elections, at a warehouse in Jerusalem on February 22, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the first preliminary results came in on Wednesday morning, parties across the political spectrum began releasing statements touting their achievements, painting the results of the previous day’s nationwide municipal elections as a groundswell of support for their various agendas.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party bragged of “a dramatic jump throughout the country,” while Yesh Atid, whose candidate for mayor of Tel Aviv lost out to incumbent Ron Huldai, boasted of its “growing power… in Israeli society and the liberal camp.”

“Israel needs a change. We started with the local government and will continue to the national level,” Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid declared, citing what he called an “unprecedented number of Yesh Atid mayors and local authorities across the country.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party sounded a similar note, calling the elections a “huge victory” in which it managed to switch municipalities’ leadership “from left to right.”

Political insiders on both right and left insisted in private conversations with The Times of Israel that their respective sides had received an unambiguous mandate from the voters — and that the results contained lessons for how events could unfold on a national stage.

A Knesset insider on the right insisted that while “all the parties have some winners and losers,” that doesn’t detract from the fact that “in most places Likud won.”

National Unity chairman Benny Gantz casting a ballot during Israel’s nationwide municipal elections, February 27, 2024. (Courtesy)

“Gantz particularly did badly, which is interesting to a lot of people because he’s on top of the polls” nationally, the person stated, charging that the leader of the National Unity party, a war cabinet member, had chosen “poor candidates without a strong base of support.”

“What it shows is that Gantz’s support is very shallow. There’s no deep support and his machine was very weak,” he said, adding that the anti-Netanyahu protest movement largely failed in turning its pre-October 7 success in rallying the people into any significant political momentum.

The “overall trend was a good day for the liberal camp in big cities,” one left-leaning political operative asserted, insisting that the centrist National Unity had done “appallingly.” At the same time, “Likud also had a particularly bad day.”

“This tells you something about the lack of motivation to vote for parties in this government,” he said. “Likud voters stayed home. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu was nonexistent yesterday. He just wasn’t part of the campaign.”

However, it was not clear how much the municipal vote reflected voters’ attitudes to Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri meeting with electoral candidates, February 28, 2024. (Courtesy)

Successive opinion polls since Hamas’s October 7 massacre in southern Israel have shown Netanyahu and his hardline allies losing significant public support, and Gantz well placed to form a new government if general elections were to be held today. But unlike Netanyahu’s Likud, Gantz’s party does not have a powerful and experienced local election machine.

Furthermore, turnout in local polls is always lower than in national elections, and on Tuesday was even lower than usual, a factor that likely boosted the showing of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, allies in many areas, including Jerusalem, since the Haredi community reliably turns out in high numbers.

Ultra-Orthodox parties and candidates backed by the Haredim made significant gains in a number of cities, including Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem. In the capital, preliminary results indicated that they may end up with slightly over half the seats in the city council.

Election campaign posters of candidates for the Jerusalem municipal elections, in Jerusalem, February 20, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The major issue here was and is voting patterns and it’s always been known that the Haredim vote en masse and other groups do not,” noted Jerusalem City Councilor Laura Wharton of the left-wing Meretz party.

“This time, not only were there the usual differences in turnout, but the majority mainstream Israeli population is still suffering and experiencing the war and turned out less than they usually do,” she said. “For the Haredim it was business and usual and that was far more a determinant than the demographics.”

According to the Interior Ministry, only 31.5% of eligible voters in Jerusalem cast ballots on Tuesday.

Deputy Mayor Eliezer Rauchberger, the leader of the capital’s branch of the ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah party, appeared to agree, expressing skepticism about the possibility of using the current vote to predict future national-level elections and saying that the outcome of such an electoral contest would depend on when they are held.

“It’s very early to predict what will be,” he cautioned.

“Many of the national parties are trying to market the results as a clear victory for them. In fact, it is very difficult to connect these results with the national elections,” argued Dr. Ariel Finkelstein of the Israel Democracy Institute.

“Most of the candidates are not connected to national parties at all, but even when there is a formal connection, in practice the public mainly votes according to the abilities of the head of the authority.”

This handout photo released by the Israel Defense Forces on February 27, 2024, shows soldiers casting their municipal elections ballots at a polling site in the Gaza Strip, amid the war there against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)

Hebrew University political scientist Prof. Gideon Rahat, a fellow IDI researcher, agreed, insisting that many of the narratives about the election prevalent in both the news media and the political discourse could be misleading — even including the claim that this year’s election experienced low voter turnout.

While it is true that only 49.5 percent of eligible voters came out, this total may not include the large number of so-called “double envelope” ballots, cast outside of voters’ municipal jurisdictions due to various limitations – including active service in the IDF, he noted.

And even if the turnout remains around 50%, that is largely in line with pre-2018 elections in Israel and similar “second-order elections” abroad, Rahat explained.

“Local politics in Israel is only partly or marginally influenced by national politics,” he continued, noting that elections in recent decades have shown little correlation between parties’ successes on the local and national stages.

While “after every local election in Israel the national parties claim that they had huge victories,” the “local context is the most important context,” he said. “Local politics at the end of the day is local politics.”

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