Netanyahu gained in election from high haredi, weak Arab turnout

Netanyahu owes thanks to Liberman and to his political strategist.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to his supporters after the exit polls were announced for the election of the 24th Knesset, March 24, 2021. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to his supporters after the exit polls were announced for the election of the 24th Knesset, March 24, 2021.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Even with the elections still too close to call, and one seat in one direction or the other liable to make the difference between whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to form a coalition or not, Netanyahu would do well to send one bouquet of flowers to Yisrael Beytenu’s head, Avigdor Liberman, and another to his own political strategist who told him to embrace the Arab voters, not push them away.
Why Liberman?
Because thanks to the hard-right Liberman – a man who bears primary responsibility for thrusting Israel into an endless election cycle because he refused to join a right-wing Netanyahu government after the April 2019 election – the two haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, won a combined 16 seats, even as a substantial number of haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are believed to have voted for Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party.
While Shas and UTJ have won a combined 16 seats in each of the previous three elections, there was concern that this time the numbers would drop as a result of disillusionment among some in the haredi camp at their political leadership’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, as well as the expectation that some haredim – primarily from Chabad – would vote for the Religious Zionist Party.
In fact, in Kfar Chabad, the Religious Zionist Party garnered 59% of Tuesday’s vote, as opposed to only 26% for Shas and UTJ combined. In the last elections, the two haredi parties took 62% of the vote in Kfar Chabad.
That Shas and UTJ managed to retain their strength nationally is, therefore, no small achievement – and Liberman’s anti-haredi rhetoric, topped off by his remark that Netanyahu and the haredim should be wheeled off to the garbage dump, deserves some of the credit.
It was not only the general public who heard Liberman’s rants against the haredim; so, too, did the haredim themselves – and their answer: Come out to vote for their parties to counter that anti-haredi sentiment.
Liberman did not create the anti-haredi feelings of the last few months – the coronavirus and the community’s response to the pandemic were largely responsible for that. But he fanned it like no other politician, and it boomeranged against him.
Tellingly, Liberman’s stridently anti-haredi campaign did not benefit him politically. As of the counting Wednesday night, Yisrael Beytenu had dropped from its current seven seats to six, well below the nine seats the party won in the September 2019 election. If Liberman hoped that running a campaign full force against the haredim would significantly increase his Knesset representation, he failed.
The message: running a campaign full of hateful rhetoric is not necessarily a winning ticket.
Netanyahu’s campaign understood that message this time as well, and applied it in its approach toward Israeli-Arabs.
If there were problematic undertones in Netanyahu’s previous campaigns against the Arab public – in 2015 with his remark about Arabs going to the polls in droves, and in the last campaign when Likud efforts to put cameras in polling stations seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to keep Arabs away – this time he adopted the opposite tack. Rather than pushing away the Arab voters, this time he embraced them.
And the result was threefold. First, it led to an increase of Arab votes for the Likud.
For instance, in Nazareth, Likud won 4% of the vote, as opposed to only 1% last year; it won 12% of the vote in Abu Sinan, as opposed to 3% the last time; and the party increased its output in Umm el-Fahm from 64 votes in 2020, to 145 in 2021.
Secondly, Netanyahu’s warm embrace of the Arabs this time led to a split in the Joint List, with Ra’am breaking away from the three other Arab parties that make up that list, partly as a result of the relationship Mansour Abbas developed with Netanyahu. Abbas believed the time had come for Arab parties – like Arab governments such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – to end their boycotts of right-wing Israeli governments, and instead cooperate with them in the belief that they would benefit from that cooperation.
By cultivating a relationship with Abbas, Netanyahu helped bring about the breakup of the Joint List, which tumbled from a historic showing of 15 in the last election to only six this time. As of Wednesday evening, Ra’am was expected to win five seats, and one of the scenarios in play was that the party might support a minority Netanyahu government of 59 outside the coalition, in return for massive government assistance to the Arab sector.
Netanyahu’s embrace of the Arab community this time also had a third side effect: It led to a substantially lower Arab voter turnout. Without Netanyahu signaling to the Arabs that they should not come to the polls, or were unwanted at the polls, many – already disillusioned with their political leadership – stayed home.
The Arab turnout in the 2020 election, nearly 65%, was credited with the Joint List’s strong showing. The turnout was substantially lower this time, and as a result – together with the Ra’am breakaway – the party fared substantially worse.
Netanyahu’s perceived efforts to keep the Arabs from the polls last time was one reason often given for the high turnout. As one Arab pharmacist said after the March 2020 election, explaining why this was the first time he ever voted in an Israeli election, “I voted because Bibi told me not to.”
This time Netanyahu did not tell the Arabs not to vote. As a result, there was no counterreaction – one of a number of reasons to explain the low voter turnout in the Arab sector that ultimately may benefit Netanyahu.