Shadow Government

Why Pundits Got the Israeli Election So Wrong

On misreading an election.

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Israelis who handed Benjamin Netanyahu a smashing electoral success had a message for the pollsters and pundits who predicted a Labor victory: “gotcha again.” Notorious for its propensity to lie to pollsters, even in exit polls, the Israeli electorate demonstrated once again that it takes pleasure in misleading those who claim to predict its behavior.

But Bibi’s voters also sent a second, far more serious and troubling message to the outside world: “We could care less what you think.” Fully aware of the Prime Minister’s tense relationship with the chief executive of the one power that has consistently supported their country, Israelis seemed to be saying, “our guy will outlast your guy.”

Neither Netanyahu’s reneging on his commitment to a two-state solution, nor his overtly anti-Arab diatribe as the election came to a close could repel Israeli voters. On the contrary, the electorate made it clear that it does not think the Palestinians are serious about peace, and that efforts to achieve it are a waste of time. Indeed, aware that Europeans are frustrated by the lack of progress in the search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the voters also seemed to be saying: “Why should we kowtow to those who have looked the other way, while anti-semitism in their countries has re-emerged with a vengeance?”

If the pollsters were misled by Israeli preferences, why did the pundits also seriously misread the Israeli mood? In part, it was because so many journalists wished for a Labor success. The old time left-leaning Israeli elite has much in common with many Westerners who report regularly on Israeli affairs. These journalists have far less insight into what motivates Israelis whose only language is Hebrew (or Russian). For their part, these Israelis are deeply suspicious of the Arabs and hardly less so of Europeans. They see no need to accommodate either.

Nor do the pundits understand the religious commitment and messianic fervor of the West Bank settlers. Many of them do speak English — though with a distinctly New York accent. And if they have difficulty comprehending what motivates the settlers, they are completely flummoxed when trying to fathom the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Haredim, or, for that matter, the Sephardi Haredim that Shas appeals to.

It is these groups that either voted for Bibi, or whose parties are ready to join him in forming what he calls a “national” government. They combine suspicion with defiance, which is why Bibi attracted them. Yet it is not at all clear whether they, or he, can prevent Israel from alienating the United States, including the overwhelming majority of American Jews who have little in common with the settlers, the religious, the Sephardim and even many of the Israeli Russians. With Washington on the verge of striking a bad deal with Iran, and a consequent urgent need for additional American security guarantees and military support, Israel can ill-afford to be at loggerheads with President Obama.

Nor is it certain that Israel can continue to avoid the sanctions that Europeans constantly threaten to impose if there is no progress in the peace process. Finally, the openly anti-Arab attitudes that appear to have catapulted Netanyahu to power a fourth time may generate sufficient despair among Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line to lead them to another bloody intifada.

Israelis have a saying “yihyeh Tov” meaning “it will be good” or “it will all work out.” That, too, was the sentiment underlying the vote for Bibi. Whether things will indeed work out well is very much an open question, however. The prognosis, if Mr. Netanyahu indeed returns to power, is hardly a good one.

Photo credit: Thomas Coex / AFP

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