Dr.Gerstenfeld’s latest article was published today in Israel National News, and republished here with the author’s consent.
Netanyahu’s rise in the Public View since the 2015 Election
Netanyahu’s success versus Herzog’s failure: From a 1% lead over Herzog before the elections, Netanyahu now leads him by 31%
One year has now passed since the last Knesset elections. Several polls have been published recently which engaged with the Israeli public on issues such as the popularity of possible candidates for Prime Minister, voting regrets in last year’s elections and anticipated votes for each party if new elections were to be conducted at the present time.1
A review of the now largely forgotten electoral campaign for the 20th Knesset is useful, both in order to gain perspective on the current political situation, and also to highlight the significant change in Netanyahu’s ranking in the public view over the last year.
The 2015 elections ended with the Likud, under Netanyahu’s leadership, gaining 30 seats and the main opposition, the Zionist Union, gaining 24 seats. That the Likud would win however was not even clear from the exit polls on election day.
The early elections were called after Netanyahu fired Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, respectively Finance Minister/Yesh Atid party leader, and Justice Minister/Hatnuah party leader, at the beginning of December 2014. Netanyahu claimed that Lapid and Livni had conspired to overthrow him by attempting to form an alternative government together with some of the opposition parties.2
It seemed a poorly substantiated claim. Yet in February 2015, Deputy Interior Minister MK Faina Kirschenbaum of Yisrael Beiteinu, suspected of major corruption, said that there had indeed been a conspiracy. She disclosed that Avigdor Lieberman, Moshe Kahlon and Lapid had planned to form a centrist bloc after the elections, with Lieberman in the Prime Minister’s seat, and the Likud was to join them after Netanyahu’s expected subsequent resignation.3 Kirschenbaum’s disclosure reinforced the perception that Netanyahu’s claims concerning discussions of a putsch against him were not merely a pre-election fabrication.
On 5th December 2014, the first two polls were published. They gave a very different picture from the actual results of the March 17 2015 elections. According to both polls the Likud was expected to win 22 seats, and Habayit HaYehudi led by Naftali Bennett, 17 seats. Labor came in third, with 13 seats in both polls. The polls predicted that Yisrael Beiteinu led by Lieberman would get between 10 and 12 seats like Kahlon’s new party. Yesh Atid, however, would fall from 19 seats to 9 seats.4
This election campaign was characterized by a huge number of polls. On the whole, the polling results were very remote from the actual outcome, an indication of the large number of floating voters in the population. Party loyalty has significantly decreased over the decades, making polling a very limited tool to understand where one is going.5
Some of the major differences between the initial polls and the actual results are understandable. The establishment of a joint list of Labor and Hatnuah was a smart move. It gave the joint list, the Zionist Union, a significant boost. Habayit Hayehudi lost many seats because of Bennett’s short-lived attempt to put non-religious soccer star Eli Ohana on his list. A further blow to expected voting figures came when Netanyahu asked voters to support Likud, saying that many Arabs were voting. Yisrael Beiteinu was heavily hit by the corruption scandal allegedly involving Kirschenbaum, eventually bringing it down to 5 seats.
The December 2014 polls showed major public disaffection with Netanyahu. 60% of the respondents said they did not want him to continue as prime minister, and only 34% were in favor. In the event of a head-to-head election between Netanyahu and Kahlon, 46% preferred Kahlon and 36% chose Netanyahu. In a similar run-off between Netanyahu and former Likud interior minister Gideon Saar, 43% preferred Saar and 38% favored Netanyahu.
In imagined run-offs against current party leaders, however, Netanyahu was seen to win in all cases. Against Labor party leader Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu would win by 1 percentage point; against Bennett, by 12 points; against Lapid by 17 points, and against Lieberman, Netanyahu would win by 28 points. 6
Current poll figures show that Netanyahu would fare well in a direct run-off against all other politicians. In a Netanyahu-Lapid race, 47% preferred Netanyahu to 36% for Lapid. In a race against Bennet, Netanyahu would win 40% to 29%. The most important outside candidate to join the elections is former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, whom Netanyahu would defeat 44% against 30%.7
At the time of writing, Herzog has been named as a suspect in a corruption investigation of irregularities during the Labor Party’s primaries in 2013.8 However, Herzog’s failure as opposition leader already became apparent prior to this scandal, in comparisons between the polls at the beginning of the election campaign when he was only 1% behind Netanyahu to the current scenario where Netanyahu would win hands down 56% against 25 %. This also fits other polls which show a resounding defeat for the Zionist Union, declining from 24 to 18 or even 15.9 In any case, it would remain behind Yesh Atid.
The central election committee had decided that both Haneen Zoabi and Baruch Marzel should be barred from running in the 2015. Once again subsequently, the Supreme Court, which by now is seen by many as excessively liberal on this issue, cancelled the decision.
Thus Zoabi in particular was able to continue her campaign of provocations against Israeli democracy to see how far she could undermine it. Since then she has been suspended from attending sessions of the Knesset and its committees for four months, together with another Balad MK Basel Ghattas, because of her identification with Palestinian terrorists. Another Balad MK, Jamal Zahalka, was suspended for two months.They will not be prevented from voting, however.10 Balad and the Israeli communist party also showed their support for the Hezbollah terrorists by condemning the Saudi call for Hezbollah to be named a terrorist organization, saying that the Saudi censure of Hezbollah serves Israeli interests.11
One other issue adds to the perspective in terms of the atmosphere around the elections: the statement made by President Rivlin asking parties at a conference held by the Institute for National Security Studies, in view of the fragmented and often low-standard campaign debates that the candidates for prime minister should focus on more important issues. The President could not know that the level of the Israel campaign was far better when compared with the slurs Republican candidates in the US would throw at each other, which included hand size and locker-room innuendo.12
2 “Netanyahu calls for new elections, accuses Livni and Lapid of plotting “Putsch”, Haaretz, December 2, 2014.
3 Ido Ben Porat and Elad Benari, “Kirschenbaum Exposes Plot to Unseat Netanyahu,” Israel National News, February 13, 2015.
4 “Israel heads to elections: What do the polls say?,” Haaretz, December 2, 2014
5 Manfred Gerstenfeld, “The Run-Up to the Election,” Shmuel Sandler, Manfred Gerstenfeld and Jonathan Rynhold, eds., Israel at the Polls 2006, Routledge 2008. UK, US and Canada.