There are two ways to improve performance in elections: flip voters from the other side, and maximize turnout from your own. Israel’s left is obsessed with the first method, but it’s working less and less. That’s because we are living in the Age of Great Mulishness, when people would sooner chew their arm off than admit to a mistake. So it is in life and art, and so it is in politics.
This elusive understanding will be critical in the coming Israeli political week, as Labor Party leader Amir Peretz will face a tempest of pressure to unite with the new party formed days ago by Meretz, Ehud Barak and some other ambitious types. He has ruled this out to date, but should probably give in.
Peretz is hoping that by instead uniting with Orly Levy-Abekasis, a former Knesset member from the right, and by running a campaign focused on social issues, he can draw in voters who in the past supported the other side.
That’s not insane. Donald Trump managed it in 2016 by appealing in indelicate ways to blue-collar voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012. That’s how he squeaked by in several swing states (including my own Pennsylvania) that gave him his improbable electoral college win.
It is a method that Israel’s center-left has been trying for decades. Sensing that the right had a built-in advantage because of the religious sector’s birthrate, it is always on the prowl for secular right-wingers who might flip. Therefore the center-left’s main parties have generally been afraid to even mention the need to pursue peace with (and separation from) the Palestinians, ensure equality for Israeli Arabs, end the country’s creeping clericalism and bring the Haredim out of their self-imposed dependency and isolation.
It worked, barely, twice, in 1992 and 1999. On both occasions the trick was to run generals at the top of the ticket, first Yitzhak Rabin and then Barak. It was a trick, but not a deception: like other senior people in most walks of life they are educated and relatively secular, which statistically translates into genuine support for the center-left,
Blue and White, the new standard bearer of the center-left, attempted this again in April, parading no fewer than four former military chiefs before the voter (prime minister candidate Benny Gantz, Moshe Yaalon, Gabi Ashkenazi and in the final week of the campaign Shaul Mofaz). But this succeeded in flipping barely 1.5 percent, less than a quarter of what was needed for the center-left to win with 61 Knesset seats. The method is not what it once was. Nor the generals themselves, perhaps.
Peretz hopes for better and suggests his goal is a 4-5 percent shift.
The pressure on him is different from last week’s urgent appeals for Meretz and Barak to unite. That move was essential and clear; for them to have run separately would have been unforgivably reckless. It is good that in announcing the “Democratic Camp” on Thursday they essentially removed the danger that one of them would not make the 3.5 percent electoral threshold, wasting precious votes.
The Peretz plan is not equally foolish. Though he doesn’t exactly say so, the subtext is that he and Levy-Abekasis are both of Moroccan background and this fact alone may move Mizrahi minds that have proven impenetrable to polemic. It may be so. Even if they lose some traditional Labor voters to Barak-Meretz, they may bring in new ones effecting a net gain for the bloc.
But then again they also might not. There is a distinct chance that Labor might not make the electoral threshold if it gives up on its original voters in hopes of winning new ones. Don’t believe the polls: in the last days of the campaign voters will move to the two large parties. In April almost all the small parties lost votes this way, and two fell under the threshold. If this happens to Labor, the results would be devastating for the bloc and would basically end all hope for a change of government.
There is a reason for this that is bigger than Israeli politics: We are living in an era of breathtaking intransigence on a global level. It is harder than ever in the modern era to convince people that they were wrong, to get them to admit the error, and to compel them to mend their foolish ways. Once people have made up their minds, plutonium bombs will not move them.
There are many theories about why this is so. A key factor is the social media echochamber that causes people to be overly and sometimes exclusively exposed to what they already agree with and approve of. People are so buried in their smartphones they might not notice an asteroid about to hit them on the head, never mind a nuanced explanation. Class divisions fomented by rampant inequality of income, assets and education contribute to the paralysis. And then there is the fact that the world has become so complex than many people have given up understanding it; this makes them skeptical of all arguments, impervious to persuasion, and unable to distinguish rhyme from reason.
Increasingly, whether the issue is Bibi or Brexit, you get a dialogue of the deaf.
This may be why the generals’ gambit worked less well in 2019 than in 1999.
So while it is conceivable that Peretz will move some minds, it is also a huge gamble. He will be hearing from many people that the gamble is too high.
I say it is also unnecessary.
If Peretz gave in, and united with the “Democratic Camp,” he will lose most of the potential to draw right-wing voters. Some may still come, especially if Peretz and Levy-Aboukasis are placed at number one and two on the combined list, but the numbers will be smaller.
That need not, however, be the end of all hope for removing Benjamin Netanyahu from power. This is because of the second way of improving performance, and that is to fire up the base. It is especially relevant when a side’s turnout is too low.
I know people in Tel Aviv who fit the profile of a center-left supporter who did not vote in April because they felt the main parties were too much alike. I tried to explain that they are falling prey to positioning that is meant to fool the right, not them, and that the differences were actually profound. But it must be said that the center-left walked into this by hiding its views and true intentions with such skill.
According to official figures, in the two richest municipalities in Israel, Kfar Shemaryahu and Savyon, which overwhelmingly support the left, about a third of the voters did not show up on April 9. In the Haredi sector the participation was overwhelming, of course.
A union of everyone to the left of Blue and White could reduce this problem by firing up the base and bringing voters to the polls. It would project determination, suggest a state of emergency sufficient for casting egos to the winds, and constitute a very good story.
Good stories drive momentum. Momentum is critical to victory. Populists and demagogues understand this very well. Liberals should learn it too.