BICOM Focus: Why are Israelis struggling to decide?


Key Points

  • Polls just a few days before the election have indicated that between a quarter and a third of Israeli voters remain undecided
  • The lack of clear policy options and the impact of the conflict in Gaza have resulted in a low-key campaign
  • Indecision among the electorate means the result is far from certain



Seasoned veterans of Israeli election campaigns cannot remember one quite like this. Less than a week before the vote, pollsters are placing the numbers of undecided as between a quarter and a third. Israel’s uncertainty, both at the level of political leadership and among the general population, is defining the atmosphere of these elections.

The centrally orchestrated campaigns are prominent enough, with billboards – usually focusing on the images and strengths of the party leaders – prominent across the country. But in elections of the past, Israelis would expect to be bombarded with street stalls and fliers. This time around, the grassroots campaign is notable by its absence. It is not the case that Israel has lost its taste for elections. During the elections for mayors and local councils held in November, energetic local campaigns swamped towns and cities across the country with their literature and gimmicks. But the national election, which would be expected to garner more interest, is paradoxically much lower-key.

Lack of confidence in the candidates

No doubt, Israel’s three-week military operation in the Gaza Strip, which brought a complete halt to all electioneering, helped take the life out of the campaign. But the reasons why this election has failed to spark into life are deeper. One reason is that the classic ideological divisions over the peace process – which have traditionally defined Israeli elections – are dimmed this time around by a lack of clear options for moving forward. Another is the damaging series of corruption scandals that have plagued Israel’s national politicians, harming trust in the political class. A sense that the political system as a whole is not working is also widespread. The sense of fatigue is summed up by an oft-repeated trailer for Israel’s most popular political TV satire, which will be sharing the airwaves with the real news on the night of the election. The anchorman stares into the camera and declares: “This is an opportunity that only comes once… every two and a half years.”

In addition, a lack of confidence in the candidates for prime minister is compounding the lack of momentum in the campaign. Two of the three individuals who are pitching themselves at the prime minister’s job, Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, have done it before but were dumped from office before their terms were out. The third candidate, Tzipi Livni, is much more liked across the country, but is perceived as lacking in weight and experience, especially in the all-important security field. The desire of the electorate to have a figure with known security credentials at the helm has only been enhanced after Israel’s recent operation in Gaza.

Kadima’s strategists claim that Livni, even though she trails in the polls behind Netanyahu, has an unseen edge because many of the undecided voters are young women who in general are more inclined to vote for her. They are campaigning hard to win those voters by placing their candidate on the cover of women’s magazines, having her pictured with nightclub DJs, and flagging up the chauvinism in Israel’s political class. But the question they cannot answer is whether those women who are favourable to Livni will turn out to vote at all. In Israeli politics, as in many other democracies, young voters are among the most disaffected. They are less likely than the general population to vote, and their choices are the hardest to predict. According to a survey conducted by Haaretz in December, 33% said they would not vote and a further 15% had not decided if they would vote or not. In 2006, large numbers of younger voters expressed their disinterest in the leadership and policies of the mainstream parties by voting for the Pensioners party, which arrived in the Knesset with an astounding seven seats.

In this election, it appears that the hawkish rhetoric of Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman is riding the wave of disaffection. Lieberman comes with an eclectic collection of views and policies which makes him difficult to pigeonhole. His sudden jump in the polls should not be interpreted as a deep-rooted ideological lurch to the right among Israeli voters. Consistent polling still shows that most Israelis are behind the principle of a two-state solution. But with the mainstream leaders failing to inspire the voters, Lieberman’s strong rhetoric is allowing him to reach beyond his Russian base. In particular, his statements on the loyalty of some Israeli Arab Knesset members have struck a chord with sections of the electorate in the wake of the conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

As for Arab voters, the indecision affects them, too. Three Arab lists are competing with the left-wing Zionist parties who campaign with Arabic billboards in some areas. But some Arab leaders are calling on Arab citizens of Israel to boycott the poll altogether, which could diminish the strength of the Arab parties in the Knesset.

The chances for a wildcard

Lieberman is not the only candidate trying to exploit the electorate’s indecision and take votes from the mainstream parties. A number of smaller parties are trying to repeat the trick of the Pensioners from three years ago and launch themselves unexpectedly into the Knesset. For a while the Greens, riding an increased interest in environmental issues in Israel in the last 12 months, looked like possible contenders. But the refocusing on security, as opposed to social issues, following the conflict in Gaza has made a breakthrough for them less likely.

The need for some of the other small parties to pool resources in order to launch viable campaigns has led to some curious combinations. One example of this is the ‘Green Movement – Meimad’, which is a merger between the highly respected left-leaning orthodox Rabbi Michael Melchior, formerly a deputy minister from the Labour party, and a breakaway group from the Greens.

Conclusion: an unpredictable outcome

Whilst surveys have consistently shown Likud to be ahead, with the polls tightening in the last few days, the results at this point are as uncertain as the electorate. In the last Israeli election, turnout was a disappointing 64%, the lowest ever in an Israeli election. With so many undecided voters, this election could be swung by which voters show up in the greatest numbers on the day.