Bibi’s Final Destruction of the Peace Process Saved Likud
As we are all aware by now, on the day before the Israeli elections on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly announced, in a seemingly desperate speech, that he was abandoning any pretense of interest in a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict in favor of the notion that all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be Israeli territory. To say the least, this speech will be just about impossible to walk back and essentially slammed the door on any hope in the international community that another Netanyahu regime will have any interest in restarting the peace process. The next day, Netanyahu pulled off a shocking victory that defied just about everyone’s expectations. There seems to nonetheless be a widely-held assumption (including, but by no means limited to, our own Saul DeGraw) that, in an election where economic issues were the primary focus, Netanyahu’s last-minute speech was not the reason for his surprise victory. In other words, the assumption seems to be that the pre-election polling – showing a likely slight victory for the opposition Zionist Union and its potential coalition partner Kulanu, or at least for a unity Zionist Union-Likud government – was just wrong and missed something. There’s a certain amount of logic to this; after all, there’s surely little precedent for an overnight 8 or 9 seat swing (the final preelection polls had Likud winning only 21 or 22 seats), amounting to a polling error of almost 40 percent.
This assumption seems wrong to me, though – I think there’s actually some pretty compelling evidence that Netanyahu’s last-minute speech suddenly denouncing the two-state solution in favor of the suicidal one-state solution was indeed what saved him.
To be clear, this does not mean that even centrist Israelis agree with Netanyahu’s abandonment of the two-state solution To the contrary, I don’t think there’s any evidence whatsoever that Netanyahu’s speech changed the mind of any meaningful number of potential Kulanu or Zionist Union voters. Nor do I think there’s any evidence that the Israeli Right as a whole gained any voters because of his speech. What his speech did, however, do was to bring supporters of the harder right parties, for whom opposition to a two-state solution is close to a raison d’etre, into the Likud fold.
Compare the final pre-election poll results – which were conducted the day before Netanyahu”s speech – with the final actual votes:
Notice that in the final pre-election polls, Zionist Union was expected to get 24-26 seats, while Kulanu was expected to get 8-10. Ultimately, they got 24 and 10, respectively, the same combined total as they were expected, and indeed one of the three final pre-election polls predicted exactly that breakdown between the two parties.
Moreover, the Arab Joint List (which may or may not have been a potential coalition partner for the Zionist Union in light of the Arab parties’ past reluctance to join any coalition, but for obvious reasons definitely would not have been a potential partner for Likud) was predicted to get 12 or 13 seats, but actually got 14, meaning it actually gained a seat. That extra seat may have been a function of polling error, but it’s also possible (perhaps even likely) that Netanyahu’s speech sufficiently enfuriated Israeli Arabs to increase their voter turnout. Either way, the small increase in support for the Joint List is hardly something that helped Likud.
More importantly, all of the other parties that would be candidates for any hypothetical center-left coalition likewise performed just about exactly as well as the pre-election polling would have predicted: the left-wing Meretz was projected for 4 or 5, and got 4 (with the difference presumably going to the Arab Joint List); United Torah Judaism was projected for 6 or 7 and got 6, Yesh Atid for 12 or 13 and got 11; Shas* for 7 and got 7. Add these totals up and the projection for Zionist Union and any potential partners prior to the election was between 75 and 79 seats in the Knesset. They wound up with 76, exactly in line with the projections.
So how did Likud wind up winning 8 to 10 seats more than any of the preelection polls were suggesting? The answer should be obvious by now: they cannibalized the potential votes of the parties further to the right of them. The numbers bear this out perfectly: Jewish Home, for which a one-state solution is at the very core of its existence, was projected to win 11 or 12 seats, yet it won only 8; Yachad, which was founded in part by a former member of Jewish Home, was projected to win 4 or 5, yet failed to cross the threshold for any seats and got zero. Meanwhile, Yisrael Beitenu, a right wing party that takes an extremely hard-line towards Palestinians but nonetheless officially supports a two-state solution, won six seats, in line with projections of 4-6 seats.
In other words, the Israeli right-wing (including Likud) as a whole won just about exactly the same number of seats as it was projected to win before the election. The sole difference was that support for Jewish Home and Yachad dropped dramatically, with Likud being the beneficiary – those two parties underperformed the pre-election polls by 7 to 9 seats, pretty much exactly the 8 to 10 seat margin by which Likud overperformed expectations.
And make no mistake about it, it was Netanyahu’s speech that probably made the difference here. If this was just a question of the right-wing as a whole uniting behind Likud in order to stave off the perceived threat of a victory for the the Zionist Union, Likud’s gains would have come more or less equally from all three other right-wing parties. But they didn’t – the one other right-wing party, Yisrael Beitenu, that is officially committed to a two-state solution saw no drop off in support, and in fact slightly outperformed pre-election expectations.
What primarily distinguished Jewish Home and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Yachad, from other parties was that they were hyperfocused on the notion of a single, Jewish, state governing the entirety of not only Israel’s internationally recognized borders, but also the entirety of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It should not be surprising that the effect of a larger party, with a real chance to hold the dominant position of power, adopting that exact position is to dramatically increase support for that larger party at the expense of the smaller parties for whom that position is almost the entire reason for their existence. And that is exactly what has happened here.
It is an unfortunate quirk of Israel’s particular parliamentary system that in this case, the right to form a government rests not in a party’s ability to increase its appeal across the spectrum, nor even in its coalition’s ability to increase its appeal, but rather in a single party’s ability to cannibalize its own coalition. But that seems to be exactly what has happened here. Perhaps most ironically, and tragically for the international peace process, the effect of Jewish Home’s tremendous – and overnight – loss of support will be for it to gain a seat in government that it likely would have otherwise lost (it is impossible to imagine a center-left government that would have included Jewish Home), even as it also has ensured that its core agenda item is now irrevocably government policy. Because of this quirk of Israeli elections, in other words, Jewish Home has won by losing.
Sadly, this cannibalization of the Right so Netanyahu could maintain power comes at the expense of any hopes of peace in the next several years, and perhaps calls into question the long-term survival of an Israel that is both officially Jewish and democratic.**
*Although Shas is perhaps characterized as generally a right-wing party, a tough stance on the Palestine issue is not part of its raison d’etre and it has historically been more than willing to join center-left governments.
**Nota bene – the Netanyahu speech referred to in this last link was his previous speech to Congress, not the recent speech.