Meet the enigmatic, unpredictable Israeli voter

The failure of the narratives of left, right and center has created a fickle, unpredictable electorate and a new politics driven by trust and personality, not solutions

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

IDF soldiers take part in early voting two days before the Knesset elections, March 15, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson)
IDF soldiers take part in early voting two days before the Knesset elections, March 15, 2015. (IDF Spokesperson)

Why is it so hard to figure out who will win Tuesday’s election? Why are Israeli polls so bad at predicting election results? These are questions asked by many Israel watchers in recent years, and by frustrated Israeli political pundits watching with undisguised jealousy the ease with which their American counterparts are able to accurately predict their own elections.

In Israel, in election after election, pollsters are constantly “surprised” and pundits “stumped” by the unforeseen surge of one party or the collapse of another.

Those who know Israeli pollsters know that they are good at what they do. In another country, their findings would match more closely the results on Election Day. Nor are Israeli voters squeamish about sharing their political views when asked, or, as anyone who has sat next to an Israeli on a long flight knows, even when not asked.

The trouble with Israeli polls is not rooted in the pollsters, but in the voters themselves. It is hard to predict the Israeli voter’s behavior for the simple reason that vast numbers of Israeli voters don’t yet know how they will behave.

The shattering of the parties

It wasn’t always so. In the three decades between the election of 1969 and the election of 1999, Israeli voter turnout never dropped below 77 percent. The electorate was engaged and decisive, even in periods of national trauma, war and the assassination of a prime minister. Throughout this period, the major political parties offered coherent narratives and solutions to Israel’s major challenges, and voters responded with consistent and predictable support.

Then Israeli politics broke down.

The newly-elected Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with then Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert (back) visiting the Western Wall the morning following his victory over Ehud Barak. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)
Prime minister Ariel Sharon with then-Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert (back) visiting the Western Wall the morning after his victory over Ehud Barak in the 2001 elections. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

It’s not too hard to pinpoint when and why this happened. Voter turnout is a good signal. After decades of consistently high turnout through the 1999 election, there came the prime ministerial election of 2001 between Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, when everything changed. Voter turnout suddenly crashed to 62%, a fall from which it has yet to recover. In the last election, in January 2013, voter turnout rose somewhat, but still couldn’t pass 67%.

Something happened between 1999 and 2001, something that had a stronger effect on Israeli politics than all the wars and turmoil of the past. That something was the Second Intifada.

Since 2006, politics no longer offer viable solutions to what was once the defining problem: achieving a secure peace with the Palestinians

The Second Intifada, the Palestinian terror assault on Israeli towns and cities that followed (or, Israelis believe, caused) the collapse of the Oslo peace process, was not objectively worse than other traumas in Israel’s history. It was less bloody than the 1973 war; it was cheaper and shorter than the Lebanon conflict. But the Second Intifada had one feature that none of those conflicts possessed: it could not be explained by the prevailing political narratives of the day.

Since 1992, the left had been telling Israelis that the Palestinians have a just moral claim to independence, and that if this claim was satisfied they would reciprocate with peace. As suicide bombers blew up in Jerusalem pizzerias in the very weeks when the peace talks in Washington and Sharm al-Sheikh were supposedly at their height, Israeli voters concluded that the left’s narrative was simply false. The Palestinians cannot be satisfied with simple independence, many, perhaps most Israelis now believe. Palestinians desire a reversal of the narrative of dispossession that forms a fundamental anchor of their identity. They don’t simply wish to be free, but to be victorious, to see the descendants of 1948 refugees returned in triumph to Tel Aviv and Haifa — not merely Ramallah and Jericho. The left hasn’t won an election since.

Police and paramedics inspect the scene after a suicide bomber blew himself up on a rush-hour bus near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo during the Second Intifada, on June 18, 2002 (photo credit: Flash90)
Police and paramedics inspect the scene after a suicide bomber blew himself up on a rush-hour bus near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo during the Second Intifada, on June 18, 2002 (photo credit: Flash90)

But the right’s narrative also collapsed. The right had been telling Israelis that Palestinian national aspirations could be ignored. Yet most Israelis saw in the Second Intifada evidence that by sheer dint of their political dysfunction and extremism — and, for many, also their moral claim to independence — the Palestinian national cause could not simply be wished away.

This is not a sentiment limited to today’s Israeli left. Naftali Bennett, head of the staunchly rightist Jewish Home, acknowledges this shift in Israeli consciousness when he concedes that his own plan to annex Area C of the West Bank is not a “good plan,” but merely the “best plan” available to Israel. It leaves unresolved the fundamental question that even the far right can no longer ignore: what to do with a Palestinian population Israelis do not want in Israel, but which has no Palestine of its own?

The rise and fall of unilateralism

Since 2000, then, Israelis’ faith in the old narratives of left and right has been shattered. The Palestinians cannot deliver peace, nor can their national aspirations — or, less idealistically, the need to separate from them — be ignored.

The 2001 election was won by the grizzled old general and Likud leader Ariel Sharon, who proceeded to launch in April 2002 a systematic military effort to defeat the Second Intifada. By 2003, the IDF was well on its way to dismantling the terror groups and the funding and training networks that sustained the assault on Israel’s cities — and so, in 2003, Sharon announced to a stunned audience at a security conference in Herzliya that he planned to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

Voters long ago gave up the notion that any particular party or leader can deliver meaningful change when it comes to peace and security

It was a perfect encapsulation of the post-2000 confusion. There was no political solution to the Second Intifada, so Sharon sent the IDF’s infantry brigades to quash it the hard way. But it was no longer possible to ignore the Palestinians’ existence as a political entity separate from Israel, so Sharon, one of the most prolific builders of settlements in Israel’s history, decided to pull out unilaterally from a major Palestinian population center.

In December 2005, Sharon had his first stroke. By January 2006, his deputy Ehud Olmert had to replace him as head of the newly-founded Kadima party, and Israel was headed to new elections. In the campaign, Olmert bluntly told the Israeli electorate that he would continue Sharon’s policies by implementing some form of unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank.

Olmert won that election, and with it a mandate for such a withdrawal. But then, suddenly and spectacularly, Olmert, together with his countrymen, discovered the limits of unilateralism.

Soldiers evacuating a wounded comrade during the Second Lebanon War, on July 24, 2006 (photo credit: Haim Azoulay/ Flash 90)
Soldiers evacuating a wounded comrade during the Second Lebanon War, on July 24, 2006 (photo credit: Haim Azoulay/ Flash 90)

In the summer of 2006, just two months after Olmert formed his new Kadima-led government, Hamas launched its first tunnel operation from Gaza against Israel, kidnapping IDF corporal Gilad Shalit. As the confrontation in Gaza escalated, Hezbollah seized the opportunity, killing and kidnapping IDF soldiers on the northern border and sparking the Second Lebanon War. For the next month, Israelis were bombarded by rockets from two fronts — the two fronts from which Israel had most recently carried out unilateral withdrawals: Barak had pulled Israeli forces out of Lebanon in 2000, and Sharon had “disengaged” from Gaza in 2005.

Now, with rockets falling from those two territories and 300,000 Israelis forced to leave their homes for an entire month, Israelis concluded that even the political center, with its hard-nosed generals and its skeptical unilateralism, had failed them.

Tone-deaf Americans

When US President Barack Obama arrived on the scene in 2009 with his fresh-faced optimism and talk of peace and mutual dignity, the Americans seemed not to notice how tone-deaf their eagerness appeared to Israelis.

Since 2006, for the vast majority of the Israeli electorate, politics no longer offer viable solutions to the problem that once defined the contours of Israeli politics: achieving a secure peace with the Palestinians.

Likud MKs, appealing to the small ideological base that votes in primaries and party institutions, often talk about the need to annex the West Bank. But Likud’s actual voters support in principle the establishment of a Palestinian state — or any other form of permanent separation from the Palestinians that might work.

Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas during a meeting in New York in 2009 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
From left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama and PA President Mahmoud Abbas during a trilateral meeting in New York, Sept. 22, 2009 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

In December 2013, two polls conducted at the behest of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace in Washington found that as many as half of the voters for Jewish Home, a party whose very identity is bound up with its call to annex the West Bank, actually accept in principle that a Palestinian state might be a desirable outcome. These voters vote Jewish Home not because they oppose Palestinian independence in principle, but because they do not believe it is a viable option at this time, or because they oppose it at the moment on practical grounds. A Palestinian state in the West Bank, many Israelis believe, would soon look like the Palestinian polity in Gaza, dominated by Hamas and sacrificing its economy and future prospects on the altar of permanent war with Israel.

This confusion has created a powerful Israeli center — a center that avoids issues of peace, land and security. It is no accident that the two major centrist parties in this election, Yesh Atid and Kulanu, offer detailed programs for improving the economy but only rhetorical lip service when it comes to the Palestinians or peace.

And Labor’s own strong showing in this election, in which it has polled higher than at any time since 1999, only happened when the party’s leader Isaac Herzog took a decisive pivot toward that amorphous Israeli center.

Isaac Herzog at the Western Wall on March 15, 2015. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Isaac Herzog at the Western Wall on March 15, 2015. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The comparison between Herzog and Netanyahu is instructive. Herzog bluntly refuses to promise peace in his campaign speeches, while Netanyahu refuses to reject in principle Palestinian statehood. Labor’s new support comes from former left-wing voters who abandoned the political left after the Second Intifada and have spent the past 15 years fearing that the left could not see Palestinian dysfunction for what it was. Herzog, they are now convinced, shares their skepticism. His skepticism is vastly more important to them than his dovish aspirations.

Netanyahu’s own confused rhetoric on Palestinian statehood is read by foreign watchers of Israeli politics as an attempt to head off international pressure. But that’s not what worries Netanyahu in the week before an election. Netanyahu’s own voters hunger for separation from the Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s double-sided approach appeals to them: skepticism of Palestinian intentions while keeping the door open to eventual agreement and separation.

Confusion, earned the hard way

And so when Israeli voters enter polling stations on Tuesday, they will be voters who long ago gave up the notion that any particular party or leader could deliver meaningful change when it comes to peace and security. Their confusion was earned the hard way, through the dismal failure of each option in stark, morbid succession.

Why, then, are Israeli voters so hard to read? For the simple reason that double-digit percentages of them — pollsters’ estimates have ranged from 20 to as high as 40 percent — don’t yet know who they will be voting for in that polling booth on Tuesday.

For most, it will come down to personal trust. Can Netanyahu be trusted more than Herzog, or Moshe Kahlon more than Yair Lapid? Is it time for a fresh face in the PMO after six years of Netanyahu, or for a steady hand at the helm as the country faces dangerous regional turmoil ahead?

Israeli elections are no longer about solutions; they are, at most, about trust, competence and likability.

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