How religion and anti-Arab sentiment helped the right-wing win the election

The ultra-Orthodox scored big by invoking rabbinic leaders; the right-wing parties that played with racial prejudices did relatively well, while those that didn’t fared poorly

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Campaign posters for the Likud party (right), featuring Dimona mayor Benny Biton with Prime  Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, seen in the Negev city of Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Campaign posters for the Likud party (right), featuring Dimona mayor Benny Biton with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and for the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, seen in the Negev city of Dimona, April 8, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Much ink has been spilled and will continue to be spilled on the outcome of Tuesday’s Knesset elections, with politicians, pollsters and pundits trying to decipher the magic formula that helped Benjamin Netanyahu clinch a fifth term as prime minister.

There are, of course, many different factors that explain the right wing’s victory, but a closer look at the campaigns run by the various parties that are likely to make up Israel’s 35th government suggests a certain pattern, which can be summed up, however provocatively, in two terms: “religion” and “racial prejudice.”

Let’s start with religion.

Unsurprisingly, the two ultra-Orthodox parties appealed to voters’ faith. They always do, but this year seemed particularly focused on religious themes, such as the sanctity of Shabbat and the importance of Torah study. The campaigns of the Sephardi Shas party and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (UTJ) faction, which together have 15-16 seats (depending on the final results), were also very heavy on endorsements from rabbinic heavyweights.

"מי עומד כאן לפניננו?גדול הגדולים! גאון הגאונים! צדיק הצדיקים! מה הוא עושה כאן? אין לו זמן…מרן ראש הישיבה הגאון…

Posted by ‎יהדות התורה‎ on Monday, April 8, 2019

UTJ electoral clips championed 91-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, its gadol hador, the leading religious authority of the generation. Shas, which in the 2015 elections stressed its social justice bona fides, this year emphasized the legacy of its late spiritual guru Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, with leader Aryeh Deri, sometimes in tears, urging voters to ensure the party founded by Yosef 35 years ago doesn’t fall below the electoral threshold.

Deri’s party, citing Yosef, specifically promised voters a “place in paradise” in return for their ballot.

The strategy worked out for both parties. UTJ and Shas both did better in these elections than in 2015.

What about the role of racial prejudice?

Secular parties likely to make up the next governing coalition pushed various different agendas, but can be divided into two camps: those that clearly appealed to voters’ anti-Arab sentiment, and those that mainly focused on other issues. Scaremongering about Arabs won more votes.

The campaign waged by Netanyahu’s Likud spent most of its energy attacking Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the co-leaders of the centrist Blue and White party, portraying them as “weak leftists.” If elected, Netanyahu warned countless times, Gantz and Lapid would form a left-wing government together with, or supported by, the Arab parties.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu took to social media to expose a “deal” between Blue and White’s Ofer Shelah and Labor’s Amir Peretz to include the Arab parties in their planned future government.

“If you want to prevent that, there is only one way: vote Likud,” he said.

A short while later, Yariv Levin, Likud’s number 7, published a video claiming that Blue and White was handing out flyers urging Arabs who are not Israeli citizens but staying in the country illegally to convince their friends and family with the right to vote to do so.

A flyer the Likud says Blue and White distributed to Arabs illegally staying in Israel on Election Day; Blue and White denies to be behind the flyer. (Courtesy)

“That’s the truth: they tell us one thing, to them they are saying something else,” Levin charged. (A spokesman for Blue and White told The Times of Israel his party had nothing to do the flyer.)

Making ominous accusations against Arab Israeli voters was a central theme in Likud’s activities throughout Election Day.

Echoing his infamous warning four years ago of Arab Israelis coming “in droves” to the ballot boxes, on Tuesday Netanyahu justified the fact that activists affiliated with Likud brought some 1,200 hidden cameras to polling stations in Arab towns. Rather than denouncing what the justice in charge of the elections ruled was a breach of election rules, Netanyahu urged the installation of cameras everywhere, saying they should be widely utilized, publicly, to “ensure a fair vote.”

The cameras were intended to preserve “the integrity of the vote,” Likud’s attorney Koby Matza explained later, acknowledging Likud responsibility. “The problem is with those people in the Arab sector,” he said, suggesting that Arab voters were more prone to electoral fraud.

The Central Elections Committee ordered the immediate removal of the cameras from all polling stations.

But the constant invoking of the Arab bogeyman apparently played its part: Likud was the biggest vote winner of these elections, gaining five more seats than it won in 2015.

יאיר לפיד וגנץ יקימו ממשלת שמאל בתמיכת המפלגות הערביות. רק ליכוד גדול ימנע זאת ויקים ממשלת ימין. ביום שלישי – מצביעים ליכוד!

Posted by ‎Benjamin Netanyahu – בנימין נתניהו‎ on Thursday, April 4, 2019

Yisrael Beytenu, too, devoted much energy to targeting Arabs: some of the campaign’s top issues were calls for the death penalty for terrorists, and vowing to make life more difficult for security prisoners. The party’s election slogan had chairman Avigdor Liberman vowing not to be cowed by Hamas or by veteran Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi. (The other main issue for the party, which used to draw mainly from secular Russian-speaking immigrants, had to do with religion and state).

Liberman’s party slipped two seats in Tuesday’s elections, but for weeks polls had predicted it would disappear entirely from Israel’s political landscape, thus the fact that it captured more than four percent of the votes and five Knesset seats was an impressive achievement.

לכו תאמינו לסקרים…

Posted by ‎Avigdor Liberman – אביגדור ליברמן‎ on Monday, April 1, 2019

The Union of Right-Wing Parties is a consortium of three parties: National Union, Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit. The latter is made up of disciples of the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane — whose Kach party was banned from standing in Israeli elections in the late 1980s after one term — and ran its own independent election campaign.

A key component of Otzma Yehudit’s expectedly provocative campaign appealed to voters’ anti-Arab instincts. One Otzma Yehudit’s ad declared that it was better to kill a thousand terrorists than allowing harm to even one hair of a Jewish soldier’s.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir speaks at a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

United at Netanyahu’s behest, some polls suggested the URWP was close to dipping below the 3.25 percent electoral threshold required to enter the Knesset, but it eventually managed to win five seats.

Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party is by no means dovish when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but ahead of the elections it focused less on attacking Arabs and more on criticizing the Israeli government for being weak.

The two main pillars of New Right’s campaign were Bennett’s demands to replace Netanyahu as defense minister so he could topple the Hamas regime in Gaza, and Shaked’s bid to advance her reforms of the Supreme Court, which the party considers leftist.

While Netanyahu pledged a few days before the election to apply Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, Bennett — who has long been the Israeli politician most identified with the idea of West Bank annexation — did not vocally advocate for such a move.

The party apparently failed to pass the threshold and was seeking a recount at the time of writing.

Zehut chairman Moshe Feiglin speaks during a demonstration held following the murder of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher, in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, February 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg / Flash90)

Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin, formerly of Likud, also lies at the far-right of the political spectrum, calling for the annexation of the entire West Bank and encouraging Arab Israelis to emigrate. But in these elections, Zehut’s campaign focused on the legalization of Marijuana and the liberalization of Israel’s economy, downplaying its hawkish diplomatic agenda.

The party also fell short of the 3.25 percent of votes needed to enter the Knesset.

In a bid to distinguish himself from Likud, New Right, Yisrael Beytenu, Zehut and URWP, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu billed itself as the “sane right.” Not attacking Arabs or leftists, the party’s campaign focused exclusively on socioeconomic matters.

While Kahlon is generally considered a good finance minister, his party fell from 10 seats in the last elections to four this time.

There are of course a myriad of reasons why Israelis voted the way they did. But invoking religious motifs does not seem to have hurt the Orthodox parties — and playing with sectarian stereotypes did not hurt the secular right-wing parties.

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