Israeli voters preferred parties and camps with a clear ideological message, and punished those that preferred ambiguity and equivocation. Likud and the Joint List, which according to the exit polls both added seats, conducted campaigns with clear positions which expressed a desire for change; they maintained their internal cohesion and stayed on message throughout. By contrast, Kahol Lavan and Labor-Gesher-Meretz had difficulty overcoming their internal disputes to present a focused or interesting message, and Avigdor Lieberman changed messages in an effort to maintain a modicum of credibility. Those parties lost seats in the 23rd Knesset.
Let’s start with the right: Unlike the two previous election campaigns, in which Likud’s campaign focused on Netanyahu’s struggle against the police and the prosecution, this time the right-wing bloc presented two clear and well-thought-out positions on both foreign and domestic policies: Annexing the settlements and the Jordan Valley in accordance with U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan, and canceling the independence of the legal system and subordinating it to the political echelons. All the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties united behind these positions. All want sovereignty over the settlements and to get the High Court of Justice out of their faces.
These clear messages made it easier for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to return to a position of leadership and control. Rather than painting himself as a victim of forces greater than him in the police and the prosecution, as he did during the previous rounds, Netanyahu this time conveyed the image of a winner, of an omnipotent leader who knows how to talk to world leaders and activists in remote Likud branches with the same degree of seriousness and determination. Re-electing him, he argued, isn’t aimed solely at saving him from his upcoming trial; it would allow him to complete his two life missions: Setting the country’s borders and “replacing the elites.” His supporters largely preferred the focused and determined leader over the fleeing offender from the previous campaigns.
During the 11 years since he returned to the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu has generally avoided expressing ideological stands. He preferred to be viewed as a pragmatist even when this drew fire from the right; he was also happy to hide behind dominant ministers like Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Miri Regev and let them do battle with academic, defense, legal and cultural institutions. This time, though, rather than leading from behind, he returned to his roots and made it clear that this was his battle. It paid off.
Netanyahu reinforced the ideological fervor and diplomatic achievements by making one of his most important ministerial appointments – that of Amir Ohana as justice minister. Appointing Ohana commander of the right-wing enclave at Justice Ministry headquarters showed that Netanyahu was planning to fight to the end and not give up. Ohana, in turned, battled to appoint Dan Eldad acting state prosecutor, and Eldad ordered an investigation launched into the operations and eventual collapse of The Fifth Dimension, a tech company that had been chaired by Benny Gantz. That was when Gantz and Kahol Lavan started slipping in the polls. The knockout blow was, of course, the recording of Gantz’s political strategist, Yisrael Bachar, describing Gantz as an unworthy loser.
Kahol Lavan focused on the only message all its members could agree on, “Just not Bibi,” but had a hard time agreeing on almost anything else. Gantz responded to the Trump plan with yes and no; he supported the legal system but then accused it of political persecution just like Netanyahu did; he tried to get close to the Joint List, a key player in the left-wing bloc, and then abandoned it. Lacking an agreed-upon ideology, the party’s campaign focused on the personal distinctions between Gantz and Netanyahu, and that wasn’t enough.
On the left, the Joint List succeeded in overcoming the disputes and rivalries among its component parties and their leaders and marketed itself as a party of protest and alternative. The boycott of the party by the Zionist parties and the proposal to transfer the Triangle region to the Palestinian state, as suggested by the Trump plan, spurred it to an unprecedented achievement and apparently increased its power among the Jewish left. That wasn’t too hard, since the alternative for leftists was Labor-Gesher-Meretz, which conducted a flaccid and unfocused campaign that mainly stressed which portfolios its leaders wanted and dealt too much with marginal issues.
Likud and the Joint List now represent the two ideological extremes in Israel: Annexation of the territories vs. dividing the land; Jewish supremacy vs. civic equality. These disputes will be at the heart of the political debate in the coming years, regardless of how Netanyahu’s corruption trial develops.