29 March 2021

Voters don’t necessarily reward their leaders for vaccine success – just look at Israel


Binyamin Netanyahu had one key strategy to winning Israel’s election last week. He outlined it very clearly back in December to senior members of his Likud party. At the time, Israel had just begun its covid-19 vaccine roll-out and Netanyahu predicted that success in vaccinations would push Likud, which was then languishing in the polls at under thirty seats in the 120-member Knesset, to forty seats in the 23 March election.

“People in the end vote according to action taken, on results, on achievement,” he told his lieutenants. And the achievement would be re-opening Israel’s economy after a long lockdown, thanks to the vaccinations. “The elections will be on that and nothing else.”

For the next three months his campaign trail was basically a tour of vaccination centers, and when in early March the country finally began to re-open, the vaccines remained at the heart of his electioneering. At every campaign-stop, he glorified his own actions – the thirty phone-calls he made to the CEO of Pfizer, to ensure that Israel received early shipments of the BioNTech vaccine and ridiculed his opponents who had originally been sceptical that Israel could lead the world on this.

Netanyahu was right. Israel has succeeded in vaccinating a large proportion of the population, and by the time the election was held last week, infection rates were way down and the country back to near-normal. Likud’s last campaign ad showed the empty streets in city-centres across Europe, contrasting them with the raucous scenes in newly re-opened Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But Netanyahu was wrong in thinking that would sway the election in his favour. Likud received 20% less votes than it won in the previous parliamentary election just a year earlier and went down from 36 seats to 30.

Did covid-19 effect the Israeli elections? Likud’s result would seem to prove that it hasn’t. Though there are some commentators who insist that the Israeli voters haven’t forgotten the mishandling of the pandemic that characterised the Netanyahu government’s pandemic policies back in 2020, before its vaccination success. Further proof for the argument that Coronavirus has not been a key factor in the results can be found in the number of seats won by Yamina, a right-wing party lead by a rival of Netanyahu’s Naftali Bennett.

Bennett was the only party leader who presented coherent covid-19 policy alternatives to those of the government, and for a short while this worked in the polls, as Yamina rocketed to over twenty predicted seats. But the actual election is the best poll and when Israelis actually went to vote, Yamina won only seven seats, just 6% of the vote.

The bottom-line of Israel’s election, the most recent in a series of four stalemates over the past two years, is that the basic division between parties supporting Mr Netanyahu, whose voters tend to be Jewish-Israelis of relatively lower income, more religious and less liberal than the anti-Netanyahu bloc who are mainly middle-class and relatively secular Jews and Arab-Israelis, has remained the same. The anti-Netanayhu, just as in the previous two elections, has a small majority of about 53% (though it still struggles to form a government due to the wide divergence of opinions on other matters within it).

Israel’s failures and successes over the year of the pandemic haven’t broken its political deadlock. The seats Netanyahu’s Likud lost went mainly to other parties within his bloc and he failed to win over voters from the other bloc. Israel’s political tribes have remained the same.

And in this Israel is not that different from other countries which have held elections recently. While much was made about how Donald Trump’s science-denying Coronavirus policies contributed to his defeat, they didn’t impact on his share of the popular vote. He actually went up in November 2020, to 46.9% of the vote – 0.8% more than he received in 2016. And while the Netherlands is generally seen as having failed in its handling of the pandemic, prime minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, also slightly increased its share of the vote in the Dutch election early this month and is now on course to form a new government.

It will take further analysis and in-depth polling to work out the extent to which Coronavirus has changed political perceptions, if at all. For now, it seems that the effect may be much smaller, at least in the short-term, than many previously imagined.

“The truth is that these kind of crises are way too complex to overcome the increasingly tribal voting-patterns,” says Nadav Eyal, an Israeli journalist and author whose best-selling book (in Israel) Revolt: The Worldwide Uprising Against Globalization is out next month in Britain. “In an age in which rational discussion is not a determinant of a political outcome, no-one can expect our politics to triumph over a new pathogen that demands our community maintain the most crystal-clear, cold and level-headed decision-making.”

Covid-19 has deeply effected the lives of every person on the planet and has sorely tested leaders, most of whom have been found lacking. But voting in the 21st century has become in many countries an act of social and tribal affiliation; one based primarily on self-identification rather than rational analysis of policies. It may take more than a global pandemic to change that.

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Anshel Pfeffer is a senior correspondent for Haaretz and the author of Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.