Almost as soon as the polls closed in Israel, media outlets elsewhere produced predictable stories treating “Israelis,” all of them, as a monolithic mass marching in lockstep to give Benjamin Netanyahu his fifth term, or declaring yet again that Israelis are moving rightward.
Yes, Netanyahu was re-elected. This is tragic and dangerous enough, without adding clichéd generalities. (If you want to know why I find the clichés irritating, imagine that you are, say, an American at a dinner party in New Zealand and the polite progressive sitting to your left asks you, “So why did you people elect Trump?”)
Barring unexpected glitches in building a coalition, Netanyahu will indeed stay in the prime minister’s office with a coalition of six parties. Those parties hold a slightly narrower majority in parliament than they did last time. If Netanyahu works to bury a two-state agreement or weaken the judicial system, it won’t be a move rightward but, alas, more of the awful same.
The real question is how the Israeli opposition failed to swing the relatively small number of voters it needed from the pro-Netanyahu to the anti-Netanyahu column. For those living in other fragile democracies, looking forward with hope and dread to their next election, I’ll point to three possible lessons:
First, the opposition tried to triangulate. The person who emerged in the multi-party election as the only real challenger was ex-general Benny Gantz, who ran on a platform euphemistically called centrist and actually just a softer version of right-wing than Netanyahu’s. Gantz presented himself as a unifier, and as someone who could attract votes from Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its smaller allies. His policy suggestions, when mentioned, were small adjustments meant to address big problems.
Mostly, he based his campaign on personalities—his own biography of service, contrasted with ever-growing allegations of corruption against Netanyahu. He expected voters of the right to agree that a man who may have taken bribes, who may even have bent national-security decisions for personal profit, should no longer lead the country.
A large number of voters well to Gantz’s left decided to vote strategically. Their goal was to get rid of Netanyahu. Everything else could wait. The left-wing Meretz party and Labor, once the dominant party of the opposition, watched in despair as their erstwhile supporters moved to Gantz.
That’s about all that moved. Triangulation failed. Netanyahu voters either believed him that the allegations against him were the product of a witch hunt by the media and prosecutors, or decided that voting for the crook was important nonetheless.
Second, Netanyahu played to his base, and to the most right-wing part of it. Yes, this partly had to do with the mechanics of a multi-party system. He wanted to make sure the voters who elected him in the past turned out again. He also wanted to keep the Likud from losing votes to smaller parties of the hard right. So he promised to deliver on what those parties had promised in the past and not achieved: annexation of much of the West Bank. He knew he also needed to hold onto supporters who aren’t that extreme. But he guessed that they would let their right hand wither before using it to cast a ballot for anything labeled “left.” His strategy worked.
Third, turnout sank among an essential minority: Arab citizens of Israel.
Both the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu camps in Israeli politics are coalitions of very different social groups. That’s how politics works. The Netanyahu camp includes—among other people—the ultra-Orthodox and secular rightists. On the other side, any possible parliamentary majority opposed to Netanyahu would have to include the parties backed mainly by the Arab minority.
Problem is, turnout in the Arab community is usually lower than in the population as a whole. There are obvious reasons for Arabs to feel ambivalence about voting: on one hand, a desire to integrate and change discriminatory policies; on the other, the knowledge that no Arab-backed party has ever been formally included in a governing coalition.
In 2015, four Arab-majority parties ran together and won 13 out of the 120 seats in parliament. It was the best showing ever. Yet even taking into account that that some Arabs vote for Jewish-majority parties, it was still short of their potential, given that more than a sixth of Israeli citizens are Arabs. If the Arab turnout had risen in Tuesday’s election, the results could have been much closer.
Instead, turnout fell and the Arab parties—now running on two tickets—got a total of ten seats.
One reason was the Nation State Law, pushed through by Netanyahu’s coalition last summer. Among other things, the quasi-constitutional law declared that the Jewish people alone have the right to self-determination in Israel, and demoted Arabic from the status of an official language. As broadcast journalist Suleiman Maswadeh tweeted this week, the law “succeeded in making the Arab public lose its last hope of feeling a sense of belonging to the country,” and instead led many to the sense that if “I don’t belong, why should I vote?”
But Gantz and his Blue and White Party made their own very weighty contribution to the low turnout. The Likud campaign included the “accusation” that Gantz would form a coalition with Ahmed Tibi, the co-leader of one of the Arab parties—and in the Likud lexicon, the embodiment of a supposed Arab fifth column. Gantz denied that he’d ever join forces with the Arab parties. When he objected to the Nation State Law, he stressed only its unfairness to the small Druse minority, which unlike most of the Israeli Arab community, serves in the military.
In his failed effort to distance himself from the left and to attract Likud voters, Gantz virtually announced that for the country’s Arabs, it wouldn’t matter which side won.
And then, it appears, there was a deliberate Likud effort to intimidate Arab voters and keep turnout low—in, you guessed it, the name of preventing fraud. A rightwing PR agency working with the Likud equipped the party’s poll-watchers with not-so-hidden cameras. Where the cameras were noticed, disturbances broke out in a few places, slowing the voting. Other voters may have stayed away completely, fearing surveillance by the ruling party. In a post-election Facebook post, the PR firm took what it would call credit for keeping Arab turnout at a historic low.
If, instead of chasing the chimera of right-wing support, Gantz had attacked the Nation State Law publicly and regularly defended Arab voters and the legitimacy of the Arab-backed parties, and responded immediately to the first reports of vote suppression, it’s possible that the turnout story would have been entirely different. It’s even possible that Netanyahu would be going home.
Every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way, and every election is different. I’m not arguing that these lessons could be applied elsewhere. Still, I pass on our painful experience of failing to defeat an authoritarian populist, in the humble hope that it may be helpful to anyone elsewhere in the world who just might be facing a similar challenge.