Comparing Israel's 2009 and 2013 Elections: Impacts of the "Spiral of Silence"

By T M
2014, Vol. 6 No. 06 | pg. 2/3 |

The 2009 and 2013 Elections in Context

To better understand the campaign dynamics, this subsection briefly describes the most important events leading to early elections on 10 February 2009 and 22 January 2013.

In early 2006, Ehud Olmert had become prime minister, after Kadima’s - recently deceased - 2005 founder Ariel Sharon35 resigned for health reasons. Due to criticism of the government’s reaction to the 2006 Lebanon War, personal accusations of corruption, and the call for resignation by Ehud Barak, leader of Kadima’s coalition partner Labour, Olmert agreed to resign in September 2008. However, Tzipi Livni, who won the Kadima leadership, was unable to form a government36 within two months, forcing her to ask President Shimon Peres to schedule early elections for February. Olmert remained acting prime minister until the new government was formed at the end of March 2009.37

In a joint move, branches of the Islamic movement called for election boycotts, citing the lack of influence of Arab MKs, and the risk of giving the state legitimacy,38 after an attempt by Yisrael Beitenu and ultra-nationalist National Union to disqualify both major Arab political parties. Ta’al and Balad were initially banned in January 2009 by the Central Elections Committee for “incitement, support for terrorism, and refusing Israel’s right to exist,” but later reinstated after appealing to the High Court of Justice.39 The campaigning was dominated by the three-week ‘Gaza War’, or ‘Operation Cast Lead’, lasting from 27 December 2008 until 18 January 2009 with 1,200 to 1,500 mostly Palestinian casualties, when IDF stormed Gaza in response to rocket fire into Israel. It ended with an Israeli unilateral ceasefire and withdrawal.40

In July 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis set up encampments across the country in a movement similar to ‘Occupy’.41 Beginning as a Facebook movement against high food prices in June, the first protest camps appeared in Tel Aviv on 14 July, and within days had spread to over 60 encampments in almost every town and city, Jewish and Palestinian.42 It culminated, after six weeks, in its biggest demonstration with over 400,000 participants on 3 September.43 The main aims were to create an “a-political” and “broad based, diffused” movement putting “society before economy,”44 and criticizing low salaries and significant increases in living costs, including food, gas and housing.45 It consisted of the young and middle-aged middle-class, and had no concrete, let alone a joint agenda.46 Because of this, the government was able to dissipate the encampments by appointing the ‘Trajtenberg Commission’, which made recommendations unlikely to be implemented in practice.47 However, for the first time, the dominant security discourse was pushed into the background by socioeconomic concerns and debates on beneficial treatment for ultraorthodox and settlers.48

This significantly impacted the 2012-2013 elections, which had become necessary due to budgetary disputes. To prevent early elections, Kadima, which had won the most Knesset seats in 2009, joined the government in May 2012 but left only two months later, when their requests for a redrafting of the Tal Law, allowing ultraorthodox Jews to defer military service, failed.49 The major event capturing the campaign period was again a military operation in Gaza. On 14 November 2012, Israel’s military began an 8-day campaign, called ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’, after “some 100 rockets hit southern Israel.”50 This was finally settled by a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt’s new President Mursi.51

Dominant Foreign and Domestic Issues

The abovementioned military campaigns in Gaza had immediate impact on the elections by determining public discourse, but also by shortening the campaign period, as all major parties refrained from political advertising during the fighting period.

In 2008-2009, Likud framed security concerns within Israel in the broader regional security context (e.g. Lebanon 2006 and Iran’s nuclear program) to rally support for stronger reactions, and to discredit Kadima policies.52 Hezbollah, which had attacked and killed five IDF members, thus starting the 2006 Lebanon War,53 was quickly linked to the threat from its state-supporter Iran, which was linked to Hamas in Gaza, thereby drawing a full circle, with Iran at its core. Kadima’s Livni, in order to reverse the image of being “too weak to protect Israel,” sought to discredit Netanyahu’s assessments of threats by citing less severe U.S. evaluations of the Iranian nuclear program,54 and shaping an image of “Obama [as] the man of tomorrow … [and] Bibi [Netanyahu as] the prehistoric man of yesterday.”55 In 2008-2009, Netanyahu and other traditional leaders of ‘hard talk’ arguably succeeded in setting the agenda, with all parties picking up on the topic (cf. figure 2).

In 2012-2013, on the other hand, Netanyahu’s threatening rhetoric was unable to gain similar traction. While Netanyahu maintained the strong security discourse towards Iran, even making statements about attacking without U.S. support,56 other political actors, most importantly Yesh Atid’s Lapid, focused on social and economic topics as part of a broader solution. Even former Mossad chief Dagan and Israeli Defense Minister Barak had noted in 2011 that Iran was unlikely to become a nuclear power before 201557 and that by spreading public fear and threatening attacks on Iran, Netanyahu was cornering an Iranian leadership otherwise unlikely to attack.58

Notably, Netanyahu had previously been criticized by the U.S. for his inconsistency between economic and political policies.59 With Obama’s re-election in November 2012, there was a strong push for progress in the Middle East Peace Process, which had not surfaced in Israeli 2009 campaigning, and which included a halt to illegal settlements and an upgrading of Palestinian rights in the West Bank.60

Figure 2: Dominant Themes in 2009 and 2013 Election Campaigning61

Figure 2

Applying the ‘Spiral of Silence’ to Israeli Election Campaigning

Having introduced Israel’s main political parties and the major themes, we now turn to evaluating, whether the ‘Spiral of Silence’ theory provides explanations for voting behavior62 and strongly differing priorities during both elections. This section studies citizens’ willingness to publicly express their opinion when in accordance or conflict with the dominant public opinion.63 Public opinion is judged on the basis of the major newspapers’ opinion polls.

Israel’s 2009 elections led to the formation of a right-wing conservative governing coalition of Likud, Yisrael Beitenu, Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Jewish Home together with center-left Labour, which left the coalition mid-term.64 Elections were held just weeks after the IDFs three-week military campaign in Gaza at the end of a six month truce.65 While there was considerable international opposition to the intensity of the response, the Israeli media and public opinion “united behind [the] military’s ‘proper response’ to Hamas’ rocket attacks and ‘revenge against Hamas’”66 and discredited those parties more optimistic about the peace process.67

This suggests that citizens’ opposing opinions may have increasingly been ‘silenced’ by the dominant public opinion, in what was widely presented as a “drift to the right by Israeli voters” as an “inevitable product of the context in which the campaign unfolded.”68 Political commentators agree: Alpher sees “pessimism over the prospects for a viable … peace process, more than any other factor” as the reason for voters’ move from the political left to the right and center.69

Yiftachel observed “security trumping all other issues,” and a “particularly unilateral campaign” neglecting social and economic issues; from widespread corruption, which had forced Prime Minister Olmert out of office, to problems of access to water, and the starting economic crisis.70 He records a dramatic rise of the ‘colonialist block’ by 30% in the 2009 towards the 2006 elections, a sharp decline of the ‘ethnocratic block’ by 22%, and another sharp decline of the ‘democratic block’.71 This represents a promising starting point for future field studies, evaluating how public expression of opinion is influenced during Israeli elections. In 2008, any criticism of the military campaign was judged as anti-Israeli, and all support for the peace process as naïve, thereby empowering hawkish discourse and ‘silencing’ contrary public statements.72

The 2013 elections, which saw the Netanyahu-led Likud-Yisrael Beitenu lose eleven seats, forced Netanyahu to form an unlikely governing coalition with Yesh Atid, The Jewish Home and Ha’Tnuah. Ultraorthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism had to join the opposition for only the second time in 35 years.73 Even though the 2013 campaign also witnessed an Israeli military intervention in Gaza, very different themes were deemed important by the Israeli electorate.

‘Operation Pillar of Defense’, lasting from 14-22 November 2012, saw tough statements by leading politicians Netanyahu,74 Lieberman75 and President Peres,76 but failed to generate strong public support. Despite frequent demonization of Iran’s threat,77 only 12% of interviewees ranked Iran and only 16% the peace process as “the most important issue facing the new government.”78 Instead, 43% rated economic issues as number one. One reason why Netanyahu failed to influence public opinion vis-à-vis Iran,79 despite e.g. repeated speeches at the UNGA,80 might be contrary statements by respected figures of the Israeli and U.S. secret services discrediting exaggerated threats.81 Even Likud’s media campaigns, including stage-managed interviews, failed to change public opinion.82

Another explanation, along the lines of Noelle-Neumann, might be the change of dominant public opinion during the course of the economic crisis. Massive protests for social justice just eighteen months prior to the elections encouraged citizens to speak openly about topics previously dominated by the security discourse.83 According to polls, 90% of the public supported the protest movement, granting them “a sense of empowerment.”84

Social justice comprised economic opportunities and employment, but also equal rights and duties for all citizens of Israel, e.g. with regard to the ultraorthodox Jews’ exempt from military service, which was declared unconstitutional by Israel’s High Court.85

A Haaretz daily newspaper poll, confirmed the high personal concern for socioeconomic issues (47% considered it the chief concern), and encouraged more people to speak publicly about these issues.86 Nevertheless, the protests did not spark support for the Palestinian strive for social justice,87 public opinion still silenced ‘leftist’ voices,88 and security discourse was still incorporated in public statements for social justice.89

While this analysis suggests some confirmation for the ‘Spiral of Silence’ theory, one needs to be careful when using polls as primary evidence. Polls may also be seen as shaping certain perceptions: Shallah e.g. argues that citizens’ fear90 was manipulated by asking suggestive questions, such as “Do you fear the Iranian nuclear program?.”91 Furthermore, post-election analyses trying to explain the unexpected results, blamed unreliable polling, and, specifically, the exclusion of cell phones. Polls therefore missed important dynamics, such as Naftali Bennett’s ‘Jewish Home’ successful campaign of specifically targeting young voters using smartphone applications.92

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