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A new mini documentary on Israel’s last election tells us something important about Israel

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Last March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a reelection fight that the polls had all said he'd lose. How did Netanyahu do it?

That's the subject of a new mini-documentary from Israel's Channel 2 news station, which tells the behind-the-scenes story of Netanyahu's come-from-behind victory. The documentary emphasizes a quiet but immense voter outreach campaign that capitalized on deep fissures in Israeli society, including a naked appeal to anti-Arab prejudice. It's a revealing look at what makes Israeli politics tick today.

The really interesting part of the report comes about six minutes into the video, when Channel 2 reporter Amit Segal starts talking about the run-up to the vote. Just 96 hours before the election, polls had Netanyahu's Likud party down — and the party's own internal polling data showed them doing even worse, Likud strategist Aron Shaviv tells Segal. The left-wing Labor party had been crushing them on a message heavily focused on Netanyahu's poor stewardship of the economy. Netanyahu's foreign policy–focused campaign just didn't seem to be resonating with Israeli voters.

That night, the Likud campaign activated a painstakingly developed network of phone contacts, sending a million phone calls in one night. Israel's total population, for perspective, is 8 million. What Likud did was the percentage-wise equivalent of contacting 40 million Americans in one night (if each call was sent to a different person).

But it's the content of the message they sent, not the mechanism, that's most interesting. The calls attempted to panic Likud's conservative base by raising the specter of a left-wing victory. But the argument Likud presented against the left wasn't about policy on issues like the peace process; it was about pure identity politics.

To understand how this worked, you need to understand a little about the divisions within Israeli Jews. They mostly fall into one of two groups: Ashkenazi (European-descended) or Mizrahi (Middle Eastern). The Askhenazim are wealthier, more secular, and more left-wing. They also completely dominated Israeli politics until the late 1970s, as they controlled the center-left Labor party. As a result, many Mizrahi Israelis resent the Ashkenazim, seeing them as an out-of-touch, godless elite. These Mizrahi voters, historically, have been Likud supporters.

The robocalls Netanyahu's party sent out appealed directly to this Sephardic sense of alienation. Here, for instance, is a robocall from Miri Regev, a prominent Likud member of the Knesset (Israel's parliament), that went out to 500,000 voters:

I turn to you since the Likud may lose the election to the left wing. The left wing, which called us "riffraffs" in the past and today calls us "Mezuzah Kissers" and "Primitive Grave Worshippers."

The arrogant and condescending Bougie and Tzipi [opposition party leaders] will do anything to keep humiliating the residents of the periphery, and to degrade us, the tradition keepers. I call you not to betray the Likud.

The language here is a direct appeal to the Likud base's resentment of the Labor-Ashkenazi elite. "Mezuzah Kissers," for instance, is a reference to the Jewish religious rite of kissing a mezuzah (doorpost adornment containing bible verses) when you enter a home: Basically, Regev is saying that Labor hates religious Jews, which is code for Mizrahi more broadly, and thus can't be allowed to win. It's a tactic that Likud has run for years.

In 2015, it appears to have worked. "After the voice calls, we noticed a huge trend change," another Likud strategist told Segal: Likud numbers shot up in their internal polls.

This is an important message for Americans to internalize. We tend, too often, to see the entirety of Israeli politics through the lens of foreign policy: When Israelis vote for a right-wing party, they do it because of Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the internal conflicts inside Israeli politics, such as Ashkenazi-Mizrahi and religious-secular tensions, play a really important role in Israel politics.

The immediate poll shifts caused Likud to go all in on identity politics. They signaled panic about their election prospects, terrifying their base into thinking the left might win.

They also began fearmongering about Arabs.

Likud's formidable direct-contact machine began sending out text messages, warning that the Arab parties would win a historic victory and join the left in a governing coalition. Basically, they were marrying the Israeli right's resentment of the left with their essentially racist fears about Arab influence in Israeli society.

Some of these messages were totally false: They warned of Arabs voting at three times their normal rate, a fact supported by none of the polling data at the time. Neither of the Likud strategists Segal spoke to would admit to sending the message, though one of them bursts out laughing in the middle of the interview.

Regardless of the truth, the messages went out in a deluge. "On the final day, over 5 million text messages were sent, and over 1 million voice calls," Segal reports. "On the last day, all the issues were about one issue only … the Arabs."

And once again, this appears to have worked. Likud not only won the election, they won by a crushing margin — and went on to form one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history.

Note that the winning arguments here weren't about the peace process or the Palestinians; that was actually a minor part of the campaign. Rather, it was about Arab citizens of Israel and fears that they were becoming too politically active and thus a threat to Israel's Jewish majority. Likud's message was the Israeli equivalent of telling white voters that too many black people are voting.

This points to something deeper about Israeli politics: Israel's drift to the right in recent years isn't solely a policy-focused reaction to the failure of the peace process. It has a cultural component, one that has helped make anti–left wing and anti-Arab sentiment into potent political weapons for Israeli conservatives.

In the short term, appealing to these sentiments makes for good politics. But in the long run, exploiting them could prove very, very dangerous for Israeli democracy.