The Global Politics Of Netanyahu’s Victory

There was more to his controversial statement about Arab votes than Netanyahu’s critics cared to acknowledge

Dispatches Israel Middle East Politics
A nationalist return? Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters after the results of the Israeli general election on March 18 (photo: Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As the extent of Benjamin Netanyahu’s stunning victory in Israel’s recent elections became clear, his domestic and foreign detractors clutched at two statements he made in the final hours of the campaign, hoping to undermine his victory and prospective government before it had even been formed. But Netanyahu’s comments — one about Arab Israelis voting “in droves” and the other conceding the unlikeliness of a Palestinian state arising during his premiership — were rather less offensive than has been suggested. Indeed, they reveal more about Netanyahu’s detractors than they do about the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s comments about Arab Israelis voting in droves came in a video posted on election day to his Facebook page (electioneering on television on election day is restricted in Israel). He said:

The rule of the Right is in danger. Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses. We have no V15 movement. We have only a call to arms, and we only have you. Go to the polling stations. Bring your friends and family members. Vote Likud to close the gap between us and the Labour Party. With God’s help and with your help we will establish a nationalist government that will protect the State of Israel.

For these words he was pilloried in Israel — mocked by confident Arab candidates, criticised by the president, condemned as racist by liberals — and similarly rebuked abroad by, among others, the New York Times and President Obama. In an interview, Obama said that Netanyahu’s statement “starts to erode the name of democracy in the country”.

On the face of it, the comments do indeed seem a little jarring; Israel, after all, routinely (and rightly) trumpets its vibrant democracy, free elections and the participation of its Arab minority. For an Israeli prime minister to make remarks apparently lamenting that participation is hardly a public relations coup. And after the election, Netanyahu felt the need to issue an apology.

However, there was more to Netanyahu’s statement than his critics cared to acknowledge. First, there was the electoral concern underpinning the statement. Following all Israeli elections, the president meets with all the faction leaders in parliament to hear their endorsement for prime minister. The parliamentarian with the most endorsements is rewarded with the first opportunity to form a coalition government with the confidence of a majority of the Knesset. With many pre-election polls suggesting Isaac Herzog’s Labour held a slight lead over Netanyahu’s Likud, and with some Arab politicians suggesting they could countenance endorsing Herzog, Netanyahu fretted that the anti-Zionist Arab parties could hand Herzog the first shot at forming a government. Hence Netanyahu’s statement, carefully parsed, was not concerned with the Arab voters per se, but with the prospect of a Labour victory, and the Arab demographic effecting it.

The reference to V15 is also highly significant. This election was seen principally as a referendum on Netanyahu’s premiership. As Labour’s campaign slogan bluntly declared, “It’s us or him.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s global unpopularity is well-known in Israel, but it actually endears him to his supporters because they share his anxieties. Therefore one of the recurring themes on the Right during the election was the influx of foreign money into the campaign to unseat Netanyahu. Among these “left-wing NGOs” funded from abroad was V15. This group, it was repeatedly pointed out during the campaign, is headed by a former Obama 2012 campaign staffer, a useful fact that drew upon Obama’s unpopularity here. There is also a suggestion that V15 is financed by American groups that receive federal funding. This would be legally problematic in both Israel, where foreign funding for elections is restricted, and the US, where political use of federal money is prohibited. Israeli judicial authorities declined to investigate V15 during the election, a decision that, along with several others, confirmed for Netanyahu’s supporters the establishment’s bias against him. Netanyahu’s allies in the US Congress, however, condemned any possible involvement by the Obama administration and are investigating any illegal use of federal funds. In any case, V15’s strategy was a get-out-the-vote drive among those demographics that would be unlikely to vote for Netanyahu. The reference to V15 in Netanyahu’s election day statement thus fed into the Right’s suspicion that foreign forces were conspiring to remove him and, by doing so, were manipulating Israeli democracy.

Netanyahu’s comments were aimed partly at his own supporters, whom he was urging to go to vote. But they were primarily directed towards those considering voting for other right-wing parties. The election was not simply a referendum on Netanyahu’s premiership but on his leadership of the Right. He spent the last several days of the campaign pleading with nationalist voters to return to Likud, once a titanic faction in the Knesset that has been reduced in recent elections to a smaller, if still dominant, force (in part because conservative voters presumed Netanyahu would be prime minister so voted for the more hawkish parties they wanted to see in his coalition).

Even supposing the nationalist bloc won a majority of Knesset mandates (as it was predicted to do by the polls), if Likud were not larger than Labour (which the polls were also predicting), then Herzog could still have won the first chance to form a government. Netanyahu needed as much of the Right to return to Likud to prevent that happening. Judging by the final results — which saw a mammoth surge for Likud and a decline for Jewish Home and other hawkish parties — the voters heeded Netanyahu’s call.

That was Netanyahu’s electoral calculation, but was it correct? Was it really a last-minute plea to the Right to vote for Likud that secured victory? The pollsters are divided. John McLaughlin, a Republican strategist who worked on Netanyahu’s campaign, says Likud knew it was ahead in the polls in the days leading up to the election — but that makes Netanyahu’s statement about Arab voters all the more perplexing. Others take a different view. Mina Tzemach, one of the country’s leading pollsters, contends that Likud was down in the polls on the morning of the election, and that Netanyahu’s noontime statement about foreign funding and Arab voters turned the tide. The problem with this side of the argument, though, is that Israeli pollsters historically have been wide of the mark — even the exit polls grossly underestimated the final gap between Likud and Labour. There are a number of reasons for this: under-polling of settlers and religious communities who vote conservatively, distrust of the mainstream media by conservative voters who therefore refuse to disclose their preferences, manipulation of polls by pollsters and the media to impact the race rather than report it, and, more innocuously, the reality that a vast proportion of the Israeli electorate remains undecided until entering the voting booth. So those pollsters who believe Netanyahu’s comments made all the difference have been wrong before. Either way, it should further be noted that already in the 2013 election Netanyahu also made desperate overtures on election day to supporters to go to the polls and vote Likud. Whatever Likud’s position in the polls, this is a tried and tested tactic.

Leaving aside the electoral consequences of Netanyahu’s statement, was it racist, as some have contended? Does it erode Israeli democracy, as Obama warned? Arguably these assessments are overblown and even hypocritical. While it is true that political references to race are often discomfiting, this is not always the case: in American elections, African-Americans, Hispanics, Jews and other racial and ethnic groups are legitimate demographic classifications. So too with the Arab vote in Israel, which this time around was watched with special interest because, as a result of a rise in the electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset, the main Arab parties had combined into one coalition, which enthused the Arab community (the higher Arab turnout has made the Joint List alliance the third largest party in the Knesset after Likud and Labour). The notion that the Arabs were flocking to the polls thus merely confirmed what many on the Right had anticipated — and, for electoral reasons, rather feared.

Moreover, there was nothing derogatory as such in Netanyahu’s words, nor was he discouraging the Arabs from voting. Rather, he was urging greater and more tactical participation at the polls by conservatives if they wanted their voices heard. His point, he later clarified, was to emphasise the organised fashion in which foreign-funded groups were bringing voters to the polls, rather than the fact in itself that the Arabs were voting, which he insisted is entirely legitimate and welcome. Thus his reference to the Arabs, in his view, was not disparaging but simply descriptive. This, argues Dror Eydar, a leading columnist for Israel’s most popular newspaper, Israel Hayom, which backed Netanyahu, actually makes    Netanyahu’s words far less offensive than some of the epithets used by the Israeli Left against supporters of right-wing parties, whom they constantly — and very definitely pejoratively — dismiss as “the settlers”, “the religious” and “the ultra-Orthodox”. In one rally, they were disdained as “amulet-kissers, idol-worshippers and people who prostrate themselves at the graves of saints”, a statement of flagrant condescension toward the Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern descent who, though typically poorer, consistently support right-wing parties. Indeed, inside Jewish Israel, the prejudice of the Ashkenazi elite against the Sephardis has long been considered Israel’s real race problem — and is the reason for Likud’s decades-long dominance at the polls.

But Eydar goes further, submitting that if the Left believes it sees racism in the Right, that is actually a result of the Left harbouring such sentiments itself. Take Tzipi Livni, who ran with Herzog in this election. She threatened that electing Netanyahu would lead to “Israel becoming an Arab country”, and observed that “we didn’t make aliyah [move to Israel] so that there would be an Arab country here”. Her implication is that Netanyahu’s hesitation on the question of Palestinian statehood will lead to Israel becoming majority Arab. Obama, too, defends his support for a Palestinian state on his desire to see Israel remain Jewish and democratic — in other words, so that it does not become majority Arab. Surely, Eydar maintains, fretting about Israel becoming an “Arab country” is more provocative than a reference to Arab voters.

Underlying this entire discourse across the political spectrum is ambivalence about the status of the Arabs in Israeli society, which is far more complicated than the international media and the country’s critics care to portray. For one thing, the category — about a fifth of Israel’s population — comprises Muslims, Christians, Druze and others; urban Arabs and Bedouin; religious and secular; Zionists and Islamists; and Arabs who have lived in Israel since before its inception on the one hand, and on the other hand those who live in the annexed territories of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Moreover, within those subsets there is enormous variety: some Bedouin are well integrated and serve in the military, others support Israel’s adversaries; Israeli Druze tend to be staunchly patriotic, except those in the Golan Heights, who retain an allegiance to Syria. These differences are not primarily the diversity of individual opinion in the Arab community, but the product of differing ethnic, religious, tribal and cultural loyalties and priorities.

Some Arabs have been very successful within Israeli society: one of Israel’s Supreme Court justices is Arab, and he also headed the committee that supervised the recent elections. But he also refuses to sing the national anthem. The judge who sentenced former Israeli president Moshe Katzav to prison for rape is Arab and there are numerous Arabs serving in Israel’s diplomatic corps. Israel’s Arabs are also not that different from some of its Jews: they are one of the poorest segments of Israel’s society and share this affliction with the ultra-Orthodox. But, like the ultra-Orthodox, this is partly self-inflicted: for cultural reasons, Arab women and ultra-Orthodox men are present in the workforce in depleted numbers, and both groups tend to have large families. This means, though, that the two groups are also politically aligned in certain ways, hence the Middle Eastern ultra-Orthodox Shas party attracts some Arab voters. But so, for that matter, does Netanyahu: it was reported that one Bedouin village, for example, gave the prime minister 77 per cent of its vote — a higher margin than he secured even in some Jewish nationalistic strongholds. Really, this should not be all that surprising, since there are after all Arab parliamentarians in almost every party. Not only are they present in the far-left Meretz, Labour and the Likud, but even the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which caters predominantly to the Russian population and is among the most distrustful of the Arab population, has an Arab parliamentarian. The hawkish Jewish Home too, the base of which is the settler community, had at least one Arab (a woman) run in its primaries. The circumstances of the Israeli Arabs are not, therefore, as gloomy as is often suggested — and certainly do not substantiate the harsher condemnations of “apartheid” that have been thrown at the Jewish state recently.

Yet there is no question that significant elements of the Arab community pose fundamental challenges to Israel and its Jewish identity. Many Israeli Arabs identify with their brethren in Gaza and the West Bank and are sympathetic to Israel’s foes. Yet for all the Arab antagonism towards Israel, poll after poll reveals their preference to live in Israel rather than in a future Palestinian state. Regardless, their latent animus is not academic, as Israel is already besieged on all four sides: in the west, it faces Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza; across the border in the south lies Islamic State-linked Wilayat Sinai; in the east, the sclerotic autocrats of the PLO rule the West Bank; and in the north the Iranian proxy Hezbollah and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra vie for dominion, with Islamic State lurking not far behind. A violent Arab fifth column within Israel in addition is therefore an unwelcome prospect — but it remains a serious one. There are periodic riots in some Israeli Arab communities, for a variety of reasons, most notoriously on the annual “Land Day” on 30 March. And last summer, some Arab residents of Jerusalem took to running over their fellow Jewish Jerusalemites as they waited at tram stops.

This defiant (some might say seditious) sentiment also finds diluted expression in Israeli Arabs’ democratic preferences. Despite some support for Zionist parties, most Arabs vote for the anti-Zionist Arab parties — parties whose animosity toward their state has no parallel in the Western world. Although the main Arab political movements — the Communists (who also incorporate some Jews), the nationalists and the Islamists — disagree on what they would like to see replace the Jewish state, the aspiration to eradicate its Jewish identity, and potentially destroy it entirely, is common to them all. A nationalist parliamentarian was suspended last year for expressing thinly disguised approval for the murder of three Jewish teenagers by Hamas; another went into self-imposed exile several years ago to escape charges of aiding the enemy Hezbollah during its war with Israel in 2006. An Islamist leader, meanwhile, was recently sentenced to 11 months in prison for incitement to violence and racism. With feelings like these, it is no surprise that Arabs are not conscripted into the IDF (although a good number do volunteer).

Netanyahu’s comment about Arabs voting in droves — and the Likud party’s accompanying election day text messaging campaign warning of an increase in the Arab vote thanks to urging by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and funding from America — drew on this Israeli anxiety about Arab loyalty and the role of foreign meddling in Israeli affairs. Netanyahu’s comments — as well as warnings by the Left about the potential demographic threat posed by the Arabs — resonate with voters because they too fear the influence of the Arab minority. In the case of the Right, the fear is that the Arabs will catapult the Left into power and undermine Israel’s Jewish character; in the case of the Left, it is that the Arabs might eventually come to challenge Israel’s Jewish majority and consequently possibly its democratic character. But the attitude of Israeli Arabs toward the Jewish state is complex and multi-faceted. Netanyahu’s apology for his remarks — that he never intended to cause upset to the Arab community and is sorry for it — was issued to a small group of Israeli Arab leaders who chanted “Bibi! Bibi!” (the prime minister’s nickname) and proceeded to give him a standing ovation and embrace and kiss him. Thus attempts to reduce the Israeli Arabs’ relationship to Israel to unflinching loyalty or to unmitigated treason either understate or overstate the dangers. Platitudinous foreign calls for Israel to ensure it upholds its democracy, however, such as those the White House has recently been inclined to make, are invariably examples of the former. An Israeli intifada is possible.

Netanyahu’s reference to Arab voters was not the only statement the Obama administration found offensive. The other was Netanyahu’s remark, made in an interview on the eve of the election, that with the present instability engulfing the Middle East, there would be no Palestinian state established during his premiership, since any Israeli withdrawal would lead to violent Islamism filling the void. This statement in particular was designed to win voters of parties to Likud’s right — parties that, unlike Likud under Netanyahu, are explicitly opposed to a Palestinian state on principle. Shifting these votes to the more pragmatic Likud would presumably be, theoretically at least, good for Obama, who would like to see such a state come into existence as soon as possible. So the White House should have been sympathetic to Netanyahu’s strategy. Instead, the administration chastised the Israeli leader for allegedly reneging on previous commitments. His attempts following the election to walk back the statement were rejected by the administration, which decided — rather arbitrarily — to accept his campaign rhetoric as his stated belief but not his subsequent clarifications.

Since it is a truism of all democracies that politicians say almost anything to get elected, the criticism of Netanyahu is not a little hypocritical. One recalls a certain Democratic senator running for the White House in 2008 assuring the American Israel Public Affairs Committee at its conference that year that he supported an undivided Jerusalem, only to clarify the following day that he did not, in fact, support an undivided Jerusalem. (For that matter, one also remembers him at a fundraiser in San Francisco making derogatory references to small-town Americans who “get bitter and cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them”, a comment arguably more distasteful than Netanyahu’s reference to Arab voters.) In contrast to the White House, the head of the Arab League dismissed Netanyahu’s comments as electioneering — an indication of the informal alliance between Israel and the pragmatic Arab Sunni states and the larger distrust between the Obama administration and Netanyahu.

Netanyahu for his part contended that he was not reversing himself at all. He subsequently reiterated his openness to a Palestinian Arab state on the conditions that it be demilitarised and recognise Israel as a Jewish state — conditions upon which he has consistently insisted. His comments in the pre-election interview, he argued, merely acknowledged that with the Palestinian Authority in a unity government with Hamas, and with Islamic State a few miles from Israel’s borders, the conditions hardly seem ripe for risky Israeli withdrawals. Whether or not one believes Netanyahu’s protestations of consistency, his logic is not unreasonable. With the Middle East looking as it does and the constant threat Israel faces from Hamas in Gaza likely to be replicated in the West Bank following any Israeli withdrawal, it is surely not Netanyahu’s scepticism but Obama’s optimism that demands explanation.

The reaction to Netanyahu’s election and the focus on these two utterances has been revealing: Obama’s animosity for Netanyahu is personal (and reciprocated), but he is now exasperated with the Israeli electorate too for standing by Netanyahu. And the reason for this­ — the real, unstated issue between the two leaders — is Iran. Netanyahu’s intransigence is one of the main obstacles to Obama securing an agreement with the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme, which the president hopes will be his legacy. By giving Netanyahu their votes in remarkable numbers, Israeli electors have shown they support this intransigence.

Israelis see Obama determined to make a deal — any deal — with Iran, the European Union itching to lift sanctions on Iran and impose them on Israel instead, European Jews being slaughtered in supermarkets and synagogues as EU parliamentarians trip over one another to recognise Palestine, another bid for the Security Council to do so too with intimations from the White House that the US may this time around withhold its veto, and a Middle East in chaos, with Sunnis at war with Shia and pragmatists fighting radicals and Egypt, whose peace with Israel has historically hinged on their both being clients of the US, no longer feeling able to rely on American support. From Israel, the world is looking more and more the way Netanyahu sees it. And his steadfastness — what his detractors consider his intransigence — is precisely the bulwark Israelis believe they need.