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Lapid Debunks Five Myths About the Israeli Elections

Mazal Mualem reviews five lessons learned from the Israeli elections.
Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid (There's a Future) party, speaks to members of the media outside his home in Tel Aviv January 23, 2013. Lapid, a former television news anchor whose new centrist party stormed to second place in Israel's election, may well be the kingmaker holding the keys to the next coalition government. REUTERS/Amir Cohen (ISRAEL - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

A fair number of myths that had taken root in Israeli political discourse were debunked in these elections. The following are the five most important ones:

“The Israeli public has veered to the right”

The advantage of the right-wing bloc, which allowed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government in 2009 and which was consistently maintained in all of the polls in recent years, provided the foundation for the emergence of one of the big myths that took over Israeli politics. The most absurd was that even the leader of the Labor Party, Shelly Yachimovich, attempted to lure the right throughout the campaign. Just two weeks before the end, when she realized she had made a mistake, she returned to her target audience on the left and discovered that much of it had voted with their feet and gone to other parties — Meretz and Hatenua. (We’ll come back to Yachimovich later, when we address the second myth that was shattered.)

In stark contrast with the predictions, the blocs tied and the election results demonstrate something that is quite incredible: Had the center-left voters not “wasted” their votes on small parties that did not cross the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset, the right-wing bloc would have dropped below 60 seats. 

Tens of thousands of words have been written about how because of the Second Intifada and the disengagement from Gaza the Israeli public no longer believes in the negotiations with the Palestinians and therefore “veered to the far right.” The main factor in setting the stage for this environment was the political activism of the settlers, who as opposed to left-wing activists were able to pull the system into the right-wing whirlwind.

Through massive registration with the ruling Likud party, the settlers were able to threaten ministers and Knesset members each time there appeared to be plans to evacuate illegal settlements. They were able to create a strong lobby within the Likud that protected their interests and, when necessary, also fought the Supreme Court when it ruled that some outpost or another was to be evacuated. By the way, the reason why the well-respected ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, who were even known as “the princes of the Likud,” were kicked off the list for the Knesset was their stance behind the Supreme Court.

Naftali Bennett, leader of the right wing Habayit Heyehudi party and one of the rising “stars” of this campaign (along with Yair Lapid to his left) was buoyed by the same atmosphere, and rapidly became the ultimate address for settlers. That is also how Netanyahu was captivated by the “veered to the right” concept. For this reason, when the prime minister began losing votes to Bennett, he stepped sharply to the right, making statements on construction in Jerusalem — even at the price of harming Israel’s foreign relations. But it was already too late. The proof is in the pudding, and Netanyahu was not able to recapture the lost seats.

In the end, it turned out that the big winner was actually the centrist, Yair Lapid, who warmly embraced the voters who went to Bennett and later discovered that his innocent smile conceals a right-wing nationalist worldview. Now Netanyahu can only regret that he discounted the power of the political center and left it on the table for Lapid.

The elections can be won without a political banner

The greatest disappointment in the elections goes to the chairwoman of the Labor Party, Shelly Yachimovich, because the expectations were so great. Yachimovich, on her own, adopted a strategy founded upon the assumption that there could be an alternative to the Likud through a social agenda alone. She insisted on hiding the political banner, which was so strongly associated with the party when the late Yitzhak Rabin was at its helm, and insisted that it would not be defined as a left-wing party, but as a centrist party. Accordingly, she declared that the citizens of Israel were more concerned about the price of cottage cheese than the threat posed by Iran and refused to connect the political stalemate to the economic situation.

When she was asked about her political positions, she recited slogans without even attempting to hide her disregard for the issue. Many even recall her statement, “We need to continue allocating budgets to the settlements.”

The message got through: The satire shows started calling her “Shelly Yaminovich” [yamin being the Hebrew word for “right”] and described her and Netanyahu as a pair of lovers. Labor Knesset members such as Eitan Cabel and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer warned that “somebody will end up crying,” meaning with 15 seats or fewer, and explained that there is no such thing as “Labor without the political banner.” But Yachimovich, as sure of herself as always, plugged her ears and shunted them aside.

At first it seemed that she really had found the winning formula. At its peak, the Labor Party had 22 seats in the polls and even threatened the Likud (even before it united with Yisrael Beiteinu). Yachimovich, intoxicated with victory, believed that she would be able to win over Likud voters who support her economic policy this way. But reality hit her hard. The more she denied the left, the more voters began leaving her for Meretz and Livni’s Hatenua, parties that proudly waved the banner of negotiations with the Palestinians. In a failed attempt to stem the loss of seats, Yachimovich declared three weeks before the elections that she would not join Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government — but it was already too late.

Now, just as she managed the campaign on her own, she alone will bear the responsibility for the failure. The knives have already been honed.

In Israel, the security agenda is enough to win

The Likud-Beiteinu’s election campaign presented Benjamin Netanyahu as a strong prime minister, the only one who knows he can give a powerful response to the threats posed by Iran’s nuclear designs, the Hamas in Gaza and Obama in Washington.

In every speech or election statement, Netanyahu and his partner in leadership, [former Foreign Minister] Avigdor Liberman, frequently used the concept “strong” in all its various declensions, but on election day, when Israelis stated their minds at the ballot box, it turned out that they were not truly excited about the strength of the pair.

Indeed, Israelis are concerned about Iran’s nuclear aspirations and the rockets that fly from Gaza into their cities every few months. Israelis want security, but also want to see peace on the horizon, and even more than that: They want to live well. The election results are, in fact, a clear and pointed statement against the prime minister’s socioeconomic policy. Netanyahu believed that with a few empty social slogans and by bringing the socially minded minister Moshe Kahlon (responsible for the so-called cellular revolution) in from the cold and directly into the election commercials, citizens would forget the fact that for four years he was disconnected from them and preferred to deal with the threat from Iran and his personal survival.

Eighteen months ago, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in all the cities and his seat was in jeopardy, Netanyahu got a wake-up call, but he did not really wake up to change the reality.

The 19 seats Lapid won are based on the spirit of protest of the middle class that took to the streets to demonstrate. Lapid’s campaign slogan, “We’ve come to change things,” captured the hearts of the masses, who preferred giving their vote to an anonymous list and inexperienced television host than to the experienced man who had spent the past four years in the Prime Minister’s Office and proudly displays his pictures from the UN.

In these elections, the Israeli public settled their score with Netanyahu and actually told him, “Mr. Prime Minister, you will apparently continue to lead us, but we’ll put somebody else who is strong (Lapid) next to you so that he will promote our interests.”

There is no mobility between the right and left blocs

Another myth that emerged around the division into blocs grew stronger each time somebody said that they could move seats from the right bloc to the left. Among those who failed in this task are Shelly Yachimovich, Aryeh Deri, Rabbi Haim Amsalem and Amir Peretz. Each of them thought that they “had what it takes” to cross over from one bloc to the other. Something that speaks to people on both sides of the political divide. Each of them quickly realized their mistake, but then, when we had already almost given up, Lapid came and proved that he was the man who “had what it takes.”

According to the estimates, Lapid was able to win about three seats from the Likud and Habayit Hayehudi. He was able to connect with people from virtually all around the country, with residents of peripheral areas, the wealthy cities, kibbutzim and agricultural cooperatives. It turns out that Lapid was able to crack the code to the Israeli sweet spot. He speaks in “Israeli” to the Russians, Jews of Middle Eastern descent, the young and the old. He speaks to the right and left, and particularly to those in the middle class, whose voices are almost never heard in the Israeli reality, but have the basic desire of living a sane life.

About ten years ago, Lapid was the host of a popular talk show. In an unforgettable television moment, he interviewed his father, the late Tommy Lapid, after his father’s Shinui party won 15 seats in the 2003 elections — a great victory in and of itself. At the end of the interview, the son asked his father, “What is Israeli to you?” and received the immediate response, “You!”

A decade later, it turns out that what Tommy saw in Yair was the same thing that hundreds of thousands across almost the entire country saw. He managed to crack the code to the Israeli sweet spot — the one we thought we had lost forever. Cracking that code was worth 19 seats.

You can’t win with a positive campaign

The big winners of these elections were those who adopted and stuck to a positive campaign strategy. Lapid and Naftali Bennett are the best examples.

It turns out that the Israeli public prefers positive messages of hope and unity to below-the-belt attacks on your opponent. That was how, for example, the Likud lost seats to Bennett due to its fierce attacks against him over the insubordination storm. Bennett, for his part, showed restraint and staunchly maintained his positive campaign, despite the temptation to hit back. He also refrained from making personal attacks against Netanyahu, although he could have done so.

In the list of negative campaigns, we can find the initial campaign of Shaul Mofaz, who declared, “Bibi is dangerous to Israel,” against a picture of a nuclear mushroom cloud. That week Kadima dropped below the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset. Tzipi Livni, the head of Hatenua, ended up with six seats after waging a campaign designed to instill fear of Netanyahu’s isolationist policy. The Labor Party, headed by Yachimovich (back to Yachimovich) also focused on the negative and designed the campaign around Netanyahu’s social and economic failures, making very little use of positive messages.

And finally, the nice rabbi, Haim Amsalem, who while conveying a message of conciliation between Orthodox and secular Jews opted for a campaign of hate directed at Shas, the party he came from. Amsalem started out with great promise, but faltered and was not able to reach the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset. In Israel of 2013, most Israelis evidently prefer their politicians positive.

Mazal Mualem started her journalistic career during her military service, where she was assigned to the Bamachane army weekly newspaper. After her studies, she worked for the second leading Israeli daily Maariv. In 1998, she joined Haaretz, covering local governance, and later, she was appointed chief political analyst of the paper. After 12 years with Haaretz, she returned to Maariv as their chief political analyst. Parallel to her writing activities, Mazal Mualem presented a weekly TV show on social issues. Mazal Mualem holds a masters degree from the Tel Aviv University in security/political science. She lives with her daughter in Tel Aviv.