Why Israeli voters are apathetic about elections

Corruption has become a key player in the frenzy of electoral competition and this is just within the context of the struggle raging inside the extreme right.
Thursday 12/09/2019
Steadily disconnecting from reality. A young Israeli man walks past a giant electoral billboard bearing a portrait of Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, September 4. (AFP)
Steadily disconnecting from reality. A young Israeli man walks past a giant electoral billboard bearing a portrait of Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, September 4. (AFP)

The fierce competition and rivalry among far-right parties and groups ahead of the Israeli Knesset elections are pushing each other to strike alliances. Candidates are telling voters that voting for Party X would benefit Party Z and then deliver a diatribe against the rival, warning people not to vote for him by critically examining his behaviour and intentions.

The feverish campaign has dampened voters' enthusiasm instead of rousing it.

Observers noted that the September 17 general elections are going to be met by voter indifference. They said turnout could be the lowest in Israeli history, given that the far right, which is the main culprit in nourishing the climate of provocation and in overstating the causes of terrorism and overplaying security fears, has split.

Opinion polls, which in Israel make credible predictions, indicate that the upcoming elections will result in another deadlock. Perhaps like the one that followed last April's elections or even a worse case in which neither the Likud party nor the Blue and White alliance would be able to form a coalition government or, in the best of scenarios, Likud would have a slight advantage that would help it form a government with a narrow parliamentary base.

Poll results released the week of September 2 by the Israel Institute for Democracy indicated that 39% of Israeli respondents said they were less interested in the upcoming elections than they were in the April contest; 36% said they followed the elections with as much interest as in April and 17% expressed interest in enthusiastically voting. These, of course, are not the expectations.

Gideon Rahat, senior researcher at the Israeli International Development Institute, stressed that part of the reason for voter apathy was the emergence of parties created by individuals with personal agendas, lack real popular support and do not have among their leadership influential figures. These are incidental and transient parties, even though each might have enough voters to give them a limited number of seats in the Knesset.

What undermines the credibility of many of the founders of those parties and groups is the apparent ease with which they switch alliances. Partisan and political interactions, mergers and disintegrations within the right-wing camp produce rapid and sudden changes in their results, which means new loyalties are as fragile as old ones.

Voters perceive the democratic electoral game as broad daylight manoeuvres to secure jobs and appointments in the new government. As veteran Israeli political analyst Mitchell Barak put it: “There is no longer loyalty to an ideology. This is the reality of what is going on and it will cause long-term damage to people's political, social and economic lives. The Israeli public, for its part, sees all this as a lack of integrity.”

Israelis have long suffered it within their society. They have been frustrated and depressed by the many cases of corruption and harassment that have been attributed to their highest officials. Some cases have been tried and sentences handed down; others lurk about and could be exposed anytime.

Corruption has become a key player in the frenzy of electoral competition and this is just within the context of the struggle raging inside the extreme right. This reality represents a dilemma for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is seeking his salvation by forging ahead.

The whole business of a deadlock is what is reinforcing the feeling of frustration and concern among a wide segment of the Israeli population about the future of the state and the new generations who look forward to having a comfortable life. Families with grown children are not sure their sons and daughters will be able to afford new apartments because salaries are falling while the already high cost of living keeps rising and because the adopted government policies do not bode long-term peace.

It is the opposite of their wishes that seems to be taking place. The spectre of war is ever present, even as the momentum of the Palestinian cause has waned.

This is how Israelis view their reality. They have no trust in US President Donald Trump and consider him the least capable to bring a political solution. What is more, the weakness of the Palestinian leadership casts a shadow on the situation and reinforces their fears because, sooner or later, things will escape the hands of the Palestinian leaders who have not been convincing models for their people.

As analysts see it, the battle for the election is heating up but voters are cool to the contest. There is a crisis of confidence that specialists in social and field studies has identified.

They are advising rival far-right leaders to focus on answers to important questions such as: How do we keep young people interested? How do we encourage the population to participate in the elections? How can we convince all citizens that they have a say in the future of the state and that they have a share in its wealth that is enough to make them proud of it?

In an objective approach to answering these questions, it is certain that continuing to brag about military might will not reassure the Israeli public and neither will the power of the military industries and their sales or the diplomatic breakthroughs that Netanyahu prides himself on having achieved when he talks about Israeli successes.

Nevertheless, the campaign from within the Israeli right to overthrow Netanyahu and bring him to justice has not been effective. The elections also have not given any indication that there might be a change in Israeli policies or in the performance of the dominant political right in its handling of the conflict with the Palestinians and dealing with the challenges of a settlement.

Whether the Israeli right likes it or not, whether it reconciles itself with itself or with its opponents or whether Netanyahu wins or is overthrown, Israel, according to all the approaches and predictions of Israeli research centres, needs to embark on a process of comprehensive change in the mentality and political methodology of its ruling circles.

Their stubbornness is intimidating the general public, considering that the factors and support behind Israel’s power cannot dispense it from reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. These conclusions are based on considerations given by the Israelis themselves. The Palestinians might have other considerations.