How Netanyahu lost

On October 30, 1972 a little-known author named Arthur Tobier published a book entitled How McGovern Won the Presidency and Why the Polls Were Wrong.

The New York Times described the book as “perhaps premature”. A few days later, Richard Nixon went on to defeat McGovern, as predicted by all the polls, in a historic landslide.

Tobier thought that on the odd chance that McGovern won, he would be seen as a kind of prophet — and his book would have become a best-seller.

Arthur Tobier is very much on my mind as I consider how the elections to the Knesset next month may surprise everyone — in Israel and around the world — with a stunning defeat of Netanyahu and his forced retirement from politics.

At the moment, pretty much everyone considers this unlikely. Very little has changed since the elections in April, and polls do not show any major shift.

And yet, Netanyahu himself understands exactly how he could lose, and lose by a lot.

It is no secret and has spoken about it often. And not only spoken — he has taken steps, and will continue to do all he can to ensure that the nightmare of a historic defeat for him and Likud does not happen next month.

I am talking about the possibility — admittedly, a long shot — that Israel’s Arab citizens will actually take the opportunity which the country’s democratic system gives them, and show up to vote.

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the Arab population in Israel is around 1,890,000. This represents nearly 21% of the population. In terms of Knesset seats, if Arabs voted in the same proportion as Jews do, they would wind up with some 25 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. Presuming that those 25 seats would not be particularly sympathetic to Netanyahu, they could together with another 36 seats from the largely Jewish parties form a majority government.

The math is clear. Even if the right wins over 60% of the Jewish vote, a large Arab turnout would ensure an anti-Likud majority.

Nothing like this has ever happened in Israeli politics.

In the elections in April, the main Arab parties received under 340,000 votes and won only ten seats — not 25. In the previous elections, when the Joint List boosted turnout in the Arab sector — leading to over 100,000 additional Arab voters — they won 13 seats. That’s still only half the potential.

But wait a minute — and now we hear the voices of reason in Israel — you cannot form a government without a “Jewish majority”.

In the scenario described above, where the parties of the Right win about 60% of the Jewish vote, their leader — in this case Netanyahu — would form the government.

And the reason why that would happen is that the idea of a government in which Israeli Arabs have equal say, and in which their leaders will become ministers and sit in the cabinet, is considered a fantasy.

This is the case because the Israeli Right, which has sleepless nights over the possibility of 25 Knesset seats in the hands of Arab parties, has managed to convince the mainstream parties of the Left that such a scenario is unthinkable.

Let’s pause to reflect on that.

Israel likes to boast that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. Its Arab citizens have equal rights. When talking to Americans, Israeli leaders always talk about shared values.

And yet in America, it would be unthinkable to delegitimize a political party or a presidential candidate because their victory is dependent upon the votes of African Americans or Hispanics.

The Democratic Party in the US cannot win national elections without strong support from ethnic minorities and indeed no candidate for the Democratic nomination can win without the support of those minorities.

One of the reasons why Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in 2016 was that she did considerably better than he did among Black voters.

At this point in any conversation with Israeli “realists” we hear that well, despite all those shared values we have with the Americans, you have to understand that “our” ethnic minorities (meaning Arabs), unlike say, Black Americans, pose a security threat.

One cannot trust them to become ministers and sit in on government meetings. They’re not really loyal citizens of the state, they don’t serve in the army, and so on.

So why let them vote at all?

This is the dilemma of Israeli democracy. Every citizen has an equal right to vote. But as George Orwell famously put it in Animal Farm, some are more equal than others.

In Israel today, while Arabs are free to vote, their votes have no value and never will.

The fact that so many on the Israeli Left and in the parties of the Center buy into this idea is shocking. The problem is not that the Right says Arabs cannot be part of an Israeli governing coalition. The problem instead is that Left accepts this.

And yet, despite this, Netanyahu’s nightmare is that this is precisely what will happen.

In 2015, he went so far as to release a video in which he said, “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

Maybe he was just trying to scare his supporters into turning out, and really didn’t believe that “droves” of Arabs were going to change the result of the election.

But in 2019, he went further.

Instead of just warning about the “danger” of Israeli Arab citizens exercising their democratic right to vote, he actually did something about it. Likud activists showed up at polling stations where Arabs vote wearing small video cameras, aiming to scare voters away.

Again, Netanyahu may do this because while he knows there is no danger of the Arabs winning 25 Knesset seats, he also knows that this kind of action, like the rhetoric he used in 2015, helps to mobilise his base.

But what if his fears turn out to be real? What if Israeli Arabs decide that staying at home does them no good, and maybe it’s worth it to vote for parties — and not only Arab parties — which might do them some good?

The result would be a sea change in Israeli politics.

And articles would appear in all the newspapers and news websites with my headline: “How Netanyahu lost”.

About the Author
Eric Lee is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement. His most recent book is The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 (Zed Books, 2017). He was a member of Kibbutz Ein Dor from 1981-1998.