Analysis: Lessons of elections past

The election that looks most similar to the potential one within the coming months is the election of 2013.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
With an early election seemingly nearer than ever, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should probably look back at the three other times this happened to him to see what worked and what didn’t.
In 1999, 2012 and 2014, Netanyahu called for elections as prime minister – with mixed results. Likewise, a 1993 election, in which he did not run for prime minister, may nonetheless also hold important lessons for him.
The election that looks most similar to the potential one within the coming months is the election of 2013.
For much of 2012, the big political issue was haredi (ultra-Orthox) enlistment in the IDF, or lack thereof – much like the bill at the center of the current coalition crisis.
Earlier that year, Netanyahu put forward a bill to disperse the Knesset because of sharp disagreements between the haredi parties and Yisrael Beytenu on haredi conscription. Sound familiar? But in between the bill’s first reading and its second and third, a Shaul Mofaz-led Kadima party decided to join the coalition, making it the largest in Israel’s history, with 94 seats.
But that didn’t last long. The reason Netanyahu cited in October 2012 for calling an early election for January 2013 instead of November of that year was disagreements on the budget, but the intractable haredi enlistment issue loomed over that decision.
Aside from a feeling of deja vu over the knotty, unsolvable political puzzle that is haredim in or out of the IDF, Netanyahu may want to take note of something he did in that election that didn’t work out quite as well as he had planned, although he still ended up prime minister, and that was running alongside Yisrael Beytenu.
From 2009 to 2013, the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu had a combined 42 seats. Pollster Arthur Finkelstein, now deceased, told the parties that they would grow if they ran together, but in that election, they ended up with a total of 31.
Which brings us to the next election, in 2015. Then, Netanyahu had an unstable, problematic coalition with Yesh Atid and the Tzipi Livni party, which were trying to pull the coalition to the Left while the Likud and Bayit Yehudi were pulling it toward the Right. There were sharp disagreements between Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Livni, but the prime minister still surprised them when he called an election.
That election wasn’t really about anything. Netanyahu and Lapid couldn’t agree on what the next budget would look like and Livni was blocking efforts to pass a Jewish nation-state bill.
In retrospect, in light of the ongoing investigations into Netanyahu’s ties with various media figures, the fact that the bill aimed at putting the pro-Netanyahu daily, Israel Hayom, out of business passed a preliminary reading, to the premier’s dismay and with the support of most of his coalition partners, now seems much more important.
Netanyahu ended that election with 30 seats for the Likud – another surprise since the party was polling neck and neck with Zionist Union for most of the campaign but they ended up six seats behind.
That tie in the polls became the centerpiece of Netanyahu’s election strategy, which was nicknamed “the gevald strategy,” after the Yiddish cry of distress. The Likud warned right-wing voters that choosing one of its satellite parties could cost Netanyahu the premiership. And in the final days before the election, Netanyahu talked to nearly every media outlet in the country, he made his infamous “Arabs are going to the voting booths in droves” video, and the Likud sent out millions – literally, millions – of text messages encouraging people to get out and vote.
THAT’S WHAT kept Netanyahu in his seat for three more years, and making himself out to be a victim seems to be working in his favor in the polls these days, as well. It almost seems like the Likud’s numbers go up with every leak from a police investigation and every state’s witness agreement signed.
There was a time, though, when Netanyahu was not as much of the political “wizard” as some hail him as today.
Back in 1999, Netanyahu called an election as his coalition was in tatters. The Right was angry about land concessions and the Left thought he wasn’t conceding enough. The Gesher and Tzomet parties that ran with Likud in 1996 left the bloc and some Likud MKs, including Bennie Begin, left to form their own parties.
Back then, Israel still had direct elections for prime minister, which Netanyahu lost badly, but there are still some lessons that can apply to 2018.
For example: Having a long election season can hurt. If there’s an election called this week, Netanyahu wants the vote to be held as soon as possible, in June, while his coalition partners want to push it off until the fall. There’s talk that the sooner the election is held, the less likely Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit is to decide on whether or not to indict Netanyahu before it happens.
But Netanyahu surely also remembers that the 1999 election season was six months long, and though he started it on top, he was sorely defeated by Ehud Barak. The longer an election campaign goes on, the more time for unknowns to pop up.
There’s another election Netanyahu should keep in mind, even though he wasn’t running for prime minister at the time, and that is 1993.
The first lesson from 1993 is that corruption is not a good look in an election season. Whether Netanyahu is indicted or not, it’ll be very easy for the opposition parties to adopt a slogan similar to the one aimed at the Likud-led government of the early 90s: “We’re sick of you corrupt people!”
The next lesson is that the Right, including people who were just kids at the time, is deeply traumatized by that election, which was caused by the splintering of the Right. Three small right-wing parties left the coalition because of then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s participation in the Madrid Conference, along with Palestinian representatives, and because of further talks between Israel and a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation in Washington. Those right-wing parties didn’t want any talks with the Palestinians and in the end, they got a left-wing government led by Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords.
The lesson the Right learned from this is not to let a right-wing government go so easily – but it remains to be seen if Netanyahu and his partners will keep that in mind, 25 years later.