Why Netanyahu won big outside of Israel’s major cities

The election results showed clearly that, contrary to the Likud and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Blue and White party does not have a foothold in Israel’s outlying towns.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is greeted by supporters of his Likud party as he arrives to speak following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 10, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Apr 12, 2019

When tensions along the border with the Gaza Strip escalated in early March, the leadership of the Blue and White party traveled to the southern town of Ashdod to shore up support for its bid to oust the dominant Likud party from power. Videos of that campaign tour showed party Chair Lt. Gen. (Res.) Benny Gantz, along with two other decorated colleagues, Lt. Gen. (Res.) Moshe Ya’alon and Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gabi Ashkenazi, being welcomed warmly by local residents. Footage posted online showed the three former army chiefs, along with their partner Knesset member Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party, sitting in a coffee shop looking pleased with themselves. “You have the right to full security,” Gantz told residents. “We have three former army chiefs and Yair [Lapid] who was a member of the security Cabinet; we know what the military can do.”

Warm welcome notwithstanding, the publicized visit evidently did not convince Ashdod residents to vote Blue and White. The ruling Likud party remained the dominant political force in the port city, garnering almost 34% of the vote, as it did in the 2015 elections. Only 16% went for Blue and White. The results in all outlying areas in the country’s south and north were similar, with Likud surging well ahead of its newly minted rival.

Almost half (49%) of the residents of the northern Lebanon border town of Kiryat Shmona, for example, voted Likud and only 11% of the votes went to Gantz and his generals. Even an embarrassing October 2018 event during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insulted a Kiryat Shmona resident who complained to him about the city’s poor health-care services did not dent the popularity of his Likud party. When the complainant, Orna Peretz, tried to interrupt a Netanyahu speech, he shut her up by saying, “You’re boring us,” setting off a media storm. Pundits predicted at the time that Kiryat Shmona would turn against the Likud. Netanyahu’s political rivals called Peretz and used the incident in their campaign propaganda as proof of the prime minister’s disdain for his voters. Peretz shifted her support to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud stalwart who heads the center-right Kulanu party.

The Blue and White leadership also traveled to Kiryat Shmona during the campaign, had its photos taken eating at a famous local falafel joint and being welcomed warmly by residents, just as they were in Ashdod. On election day, April 9, Kiryat Shmona stood by Netanyahu.

Netanyahu also took 55% of the votes in the eastern town of Beit She’an, with Blue and White barely getting 5.2%. The Likud swept to victory in the southern border town of Sderot, battered for years by Qassam rockets from Gaza, with some 43% of the vote, leaving Blue and White far behind with only 9%. The same pattern emerged repeatedly: Residents of less well-established, outlying towns — many having suffered for years under constant barrages from Gaza and complaining that the government had abandoned them — once again placed their faith in Netanyahu and his Likud party.

In more prosperous, centrally located areas, Blue and White overtook the Likud to become the biggest party, providing a mirror image of the results in the rest of the country. In Tel Aviv, for example, Blue and White garnered 45% of the vote, leaving the Likud far behind with 19%. Over 55% of voters in the upscale suburban Tel Aviv town of Ramat Hasharon gave their support to Blue and White, compared with 17% to Likud. Almost half (48%) the voters in the neighboring town of Herzliya voted for the generals and only 23% for the veteran Likud. In the nearby town of Hod Hasharon, also part of the Tel Aviv metro area, 53% voted for Blue and White and only some 20% for the Likud. 

This voting pattern is not new. The results reflect nothing more than the traditional support the Likud has enjoyed for decades in the geographic periphery. Blue and White assumed it could disrupt this pattern with generals at the helm, some well-known right-wing figures who formerly sided with the Likud, and back-slapping, glad-handing photo-ops. They expected some Likud voters to jump ship and come over to them. The outcome was nowhere near that scenario. The Likud scored a crushing victory, in no small part due to Netanyahu’s long-standing close ties with his electorate. Not only did the criminal probes and possible indictments, pending a hearing, on charges of corruption not hurt Netanyahu, they buttressed the support he has enjoyed since he first went into politics at the end of the 1980s and ran on the Likud slate for the Knesset after serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Elections cannot be won in Israel without the backing of the periphery. Support of major towns in the center are not sufficient. A former close aide to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Sheves, used to recount that the 1992 election campaign that resulted in Rabin’s victory focused almost entirely on the periphery (considered stronghold of the Likud). Rabin barely campaigned in the country’s center. Rabin also had a well-established party backing him — the Labor party, many of whose Knesset representatives hailed from the periphery. While Likud was already a strong party at that time, Rabin succeeded in attracting quite a few voters from right-wing bastions on his way to the prime minister’s office.

Like Rabin, Gantz was also chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), but that was not enough. Gantz heads a new party formed about two months ago, which lacks a foothold in outlying regions. Positioning the former mayor of the small Negev Desert town of Yeruham, Michael Biton, in the relatively high 11th place on the Blue and White Knesset slate was not enough. Judging by the results, the move did not help much. The Likud is still the biggest party in Yeruham — 42% of Biton’s former constituents voted for Likud on April 9, only 10% for his Blue and White party.

The recurring question after every election cycle in Israel of why the periphery keep voting as a “herd” for the Likud despite persistent social and security woes under its leadership reflects a total lack of understanding of this tight, historic relationship. For residents of what are known as “development towns,” established in the 1950s and 1960s to house immigrants, many of them from Arab states in North Africa and the Middle East, the Likud is a political home. The party, shunned by the ruling Mapai party (precursor of the Labor Party) responsible for sending those early immigrants to the geographic periphery, is an integral part of their identity and self-determination. They are not a herd as many tar them and they do not vote blindly. It is also a mistake to regard these Likud voters as poor. That was the case in the state’s early years, but today many party faithful are relatively well-off, even though they live in distant “development” towns. The poorest Israelis are actually Arab citizens and ultra-Orthodox Jews, almost none of whom vote Likud.

The Likud is a party with a proud tradition and deep ties to its core constituents. Netanyahu’s achievement — increasing the Likud’s Knesset faction from 30 to 36 seats, despite the criminal suspicions against him and the generals party that set out to unseat him — was not only due to traditional Likud voters. Netanyahu enjoyed major support in the country’s center as well, from independent voters who believe in his leadership, view him as a great statesman, as Mr. Security, and are willing to ignore the corruption scandals dogging him. These were the icing on the cake for him. Netanyahu went into the 2019 elections secure in knowing that he could count on a solid base of faithful Likud supporters in the country’s periphery.

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