With the election at an end, it is time to take a look at the campaigns put on by the various parties. Who succeeded? Who failed? And why?
The Likud’s campaign was weak until the very last week. Until the last published poll showing the party was about to lose power, it kept going down in polls.
It was at this point that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went out and started campaigning more intensely than we have ever seen him do. At this point, the combination of a strong campaign by Netanyahu and the palpable feeling that the Left might win united everyone who did not want to see The Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog as prime minister. What started as a “Just not Bibi” campaign by the Left ended with a “Just not Herzog” by the Right.
In the end, the campaign deserves credit for enabling the Likud to go from 18 seats to 30 seats, while facing a hateful and extremely negative offensive by the Left.
The Zionist Union
The Zionist Union lost the election, but the fact that it was even close to winning is a great accomplishment.
One year ago, no one took Herzog seriously as a candidate for prime minister. Only after his bold – though widely criticized – merger with Tzipi Livni did people even start taking him seriously.
After that, he kept going up in the polls, since he was perceived as the only real alternative to Netanyahu.
Even the extreme leftist list that was chosen in the party’s primary did not hurt his rise.
At the end of the day, it is easy to claim that the 24 seats gained by Herzog are a failure, since he lost the election.
However, the truth is that it is less of a failure for the Zionist Union and more of a victory for the Likud. The Zionist Union did well, but the Likud did better.
The party started the campaign with polls showing it going from 12 seats in the 19th Knesset to 18 seats; the campaign ended with a disappointing eight seats.
Two years ago, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett was seen as someone who had completely revolutionized Israeli politics. He brought in two parties that together made up seven seats, merged them and led them to an impressive 12 seats. Today, the party has gone back down to eight seats.
Bennett has a problem: In Israel’s political system, to become prime minister, one must build a coalition. Since Bayit Yehudi is the most right-wing party in the Knesset, no factions will agree to join a coalition led by it. Therefore, when the Right’s rule is in danger, right-wing voters will first want to ensure they keep a right-wing prime minister. Only when the right-wing candidate for prime minister is clearly leading in the polls will they allow themselves to vote for a smaller right-wing party.
Still, the campaign also included some serious strategic mistakes. For example, Bennett encouraged people to run in his party’s primary. His strategy seemed clear: The more people join, the more supporters they will bring to the party. However, most of those people failed miserably in the primary because there were way too many candidates; quickly, the enthusiasm was replaced with disappointment.
Then came the story of Eli Ohana, a Mizrahi soccer player who was offered a reserved spot on Bayit Yehudi’s list. This angered everyone: The Mizrahim saw it as a transparent and insulting attempt to superficially get them to vote for the party; the religious claimed he did not represent them; the Right opposed him because he supported disengagement. The polls showed a clear drop in support for the party, and Ohana declined the spot on the list.
Then came the attacks from Bennett on Netanyahu, in which he claimed Netanyahu was not right-wing enough. Bringing up the diplomatic issue was a mistake: Right-wing voters clearly wanted Netanyahu to beat Herzog. By highlighting the diplomatic issues, Bennett actually hurt himself – by emphasizing the fact that right-wing voters did not have the luxury to vote for smaller parties.
The combination of a tough reality and bad decisions caused an utter failure for the party. Yet one would be mistaken to rule out Bennett. He is young and one of the most promising politicians in Israel; he will bounce back.
The party led an impressive campaign; leader Arye Deri, a convicted criminal, is one of Israel’s most manipulative politicians.
The campaign started with genuine challenges to Shas. Eli Yishai, the party’s former leader, split off in the new Yahad party; spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had died and tapes were released showing Deri was disliked by Yosef. Yet Deri managed to stabilize the party and turn things around.
Deri, who started the campaign with a crumbling party and with an uncertain hold on it, ended it with a small but stable party in which he is the ultimate ruler.
Yahad was built out of pure political calculations. The three leaders, Yishai, Yoni Chetboun and Baruch Marzel, were a hybrid of people whose only common ground was that they could not fit in as part of any other party.
The problem: Their calculations were completely wrong.
Yahad did not pass the threshold and all of its members were left outside the Knesset, costing the Right around three mandates.
Party chairman Moshe Kahlon was one of the most promising figures in this election cycle, yet he ended with an average result of 10 seats.
Kahlon’s main mistake was his lack of discipline.
Kulanu was established to be a party with a socioeconomic message that ignored all diplomatic and security issues. However, in his very first interviews, Kahlon talked about diplomatic issues. When choosing people to join his list, Kahlon chose former generals and ambassadors, highlighting diplomatic and security issues. This brought these questions to the forefront – and hurt his party.
Only in the last week did Kahlon stick to his message, refusing to answer questions on diplomatic issues.
This is when his campaign started to take off, too late to get more than 10 seats.
Yesh Atid went from 19 seats to 11 seats – yet the party started the election campaign with around six seats in the polls.
Party leader Yair Lapid ran an incredible campaign focused on field operations, including town hall meetings where he addressed the electorate directly. His field campaign also included smart management of volunteers, which grew exponentially as the election approached.
This allowed Lapid to stop his drop in the polls, which was due to heavy disappointment about his term as finance minister. Quickly, people forgot he was even part of the government that he criticized in every speech. Then, he slowly started to regain some of his prestige and rose in the polls. The final results was a respectable 11 seats.
Party head Avigdor Liberman’s campaign started with a bombshell: Yisrael Beytenu was once again accused of serious legal wrongdoing.
Liberman’s campaign focused on strengthening his base. His greatest fear was that without a strong hold on this base, he would not pass the threshold and would thus disappear.
Liberman did succeed in surviving this very difficult election. It will be interesting to see what he will do next in order to revitalize his party.
United Torah Judaism
The great strength of this ultra-Orthodox party is that it unites all haredi Ashkenazim under one roof, making the focus of its campaign not on convincing people to vote for them but on getting the vote out. In this election cycle, that trend was broken.
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, one of the haredi world’s most prominent rabbis, called on people to stay home and not go out to vote for UTJ.
This is a groundbreaking decision in the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox movement. While its effects on this election cycle have been minor, it opens the door for major dissent within the community.
The party started the last week of the election fighting for its life, as it dropped close to the threshold. The reason was simple: In close elections, people vote for the larger parties.
In this pivotal last week, Meretz called on its supporters to prevent the party from disappearing.
Meretz is a party embraced by the Left – and the message worked. The fear of losing the party pushed many undecided voters to vote for it, not for the larger Zionist Union.
Joint (Arab) List
One of the big stories of this election was the ability of the Joint List to unite all Arab parties and raise their total mandates – from the 10 they held separately to the 13 they now hold.
The list included fascist elements that had to sit next to Communist elements. Their strategy was simple: Not actually dealing with the issues, just calling on people to vote for the party in order to strengthen Arab rights in Israel.
The strategy worked, as voter turnout in Arabic areas spiked; the Joint List is now the third-largest party in the Knesset.
Time to move forward
This election was one of the most divisive of the past decade, with personal attacks rampant all over the media and the Internet. Israelis will not be sorry to say goodbye to this campaign.
As the Jewish state now faces serious challenges, it is time to unite around the elected government – to enable it to successfully address these challenges. The writer is an attorney and a former legislative adviser to the Knesset’s coalition chairman; he previously served in a legal capacity at the Foreign Ministry. He is a graduate of McGill University Law School and Hebrew University’s master’s program in public policy.