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

By Tobias Metzger
2014, Vol. 6 No. 06 | pg. 1/3 |

Israeli election campaigns, and especially Likud campaigning under Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, are known for their emphasis on security threats from within Gaza and the West Bank and, more importantly, from Iran’s nuclear program. By stressing these security threats and proclaiming himself the only possible leader to ensure citizens’ safety, Netanyahu arguably succeeded in silencing economic and social demands in Israel’s 2009 .

Surprisingly, even to close observers and polling experts, the appearance of a new political actor, Yair Lapid’s ‘Yesh Atid’1 party, caused a major shift during the Israeli 2012-2013 election campaign. By focusing on socioeconomic issues, and addressing the controversial topic of special treatment for the ultraorthodox, particularly regarding their exemption from military service, former journalist and TV moderator Lapid succeeded in securing 19 of 120 parliamentary Knesset seats, emerging as the second largest party.

Map of Israel

While much of the party’s success has been associated with the person of Lapid and his team of campaigning professionals, considering perceptual effects and especially the climate of opinion may add a valuable theoretical perspective to the discussion. Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s research on the ‘Spiral of Silence’2 describes how individuals are more likely to state their opinions if these are along the lines of the mainstream, and less likely to do so if mainstream ideas oppose their views.

Section 2 introduces this theory, which was previously applied to German election campaigning in the 1970s3 and U.S. presidential competition between Reagan and Carter4 in 1980, among others. In order to provide the reader with an idea of the complex Israeli political sphere, section 3 introduces the main political actors and parties, and places them in the broader context of Israeli domestic and foreign politics. In section 4, the ‘spiral of silence’ theory is applied to evaluate whether this theory can explain key differences between the 2009 and 2013 Israeli elections, and the shift in campaign dynamics from security discourse to a discourse on domestic socioeconomic issues. The aim is to evaluate whether there were developments in public opinion that can explain the changes in public statements following the ‘Spiral of Silence’ theory. Finally, section 5 summarizes the findings and critically assesses the usefulness of this analytical approach, offering suggestions for future research. One such analysis, which is excluded due to space limitations, could be to identify how framing,5 priming6 or agenda-setting7 influence public opinion, and to identify which actors are successful in doing so.

The Spiral of Silence Theory

To explain why only few citizens of Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’ openly voiced criticism early on, German political scientist Noelle-Neumann developed a framework of questions to assess opinions expressed in private and public.8 The theory’s core insight is that “one’s perception of the distribution of public opinion motivates one’s willingness to express political opinions.”9 Because people with opposing views increasingly abstain from debate out of fear of isolating themselves, mainstream views are further strengthened. ‘The Spiral of Silence’ then refers to the phenomenon of a ‘spiraling process’ deafening certain individuals and empowering others, thus establishing one dominant opinion.10

Noelle-Neumann concludes that for the individual “not isolating himself is more important than his own judgment,”11 and he is “more frightened of isolation than of committing an error,”12 therefore joining the masses, despite disagreement. Lacking hard evidence of public opinion, people turn to the mass media, which may, for propaganda or other reasons, further shape the dominant opinion, and speed up the ‘Spiral of Silence’.13 In addition to the perception of current public opinion, the perception of future developments determine one’s willingness to express controversial opinions, which makes the results of polls a core element of the theory.14 Only few people, the ‘resistant hardcore’, are "not prepared to conform, to change their opinions, or even to be silent in the face of public opinion,"15 and only listen to the opinions of their own camp.16

The latter are important findings, since Noelle-Neumann attributes a ‘quasi-statistical organ’ or sense to people, which is used to make judgments on current and future public opinion.17 This may be impaired by group polarization, mass media coverage or opinion polling. As mentioned, other theories of mass communication, such as mass media agenda-setting, framing or priming are helpful in evaluating these processes. However, the theory does not apply to all areas of life. While some fields are static, and disregard of e.g. customs leads to immediate risk of isolation, others are ‘disputed’ or ‘subject to change,’ prompting individuals to assess whether the expression of deviating opinions will be accepted by public opinion.18

To ensure a common understanding, public opinion will hereafter be understood as “the aggregation of the views of individuals in society,”19 measured through opinion polls. Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, who coined this idea between the mid-17th and 18th century, already discussed the negative notion of “pressure to conform.”20 Specific to election campaigning, it can be defined as “the judgment, founded on rational discussion, of informed and responsible citizens meting out praise or blame to the government.”21

Background on 2009 and 2013 Israeli Elections

With four elections in ten years, has had a turbulent past of almost constant election campaigning.22 This battle for influence of individuals within parties, parties within the electoral system, and, finally, possible coalition partners in government revolves around central recurring themes.

This section introduces the main political actors of the last two elections, and their alignment to and perception of core issues, in order to analyze the changing dynamics between 2008-2009 and 2012-2013. It is important to note that Israel has a highly proportional electoral system, where each party presents a national list of candidates, voters choose one party and each party receives their proportion of the 120 seats in national parliament or ‘Knesset’ - provided they pass the 2% minimum threshold. Candidates enter the Knesset in the order of the initial party list.23 Palestinians are granted citizenship and thereby voting rights, depending on their residency.24

Israel’s Political Parties

Despite strong polarization vis-à-vis disputed topics, such as the question of a Palestinian state, Israel has a complex political arena given the fact that leading politicians of major parties have often formed break-away factions. The most important parties in 2009 and 2013 and their election results are listed hereafter:252627282930

Figure 1: Main Parties and Election Results in 2009 and 201331

Figure 1

Analysts use various dimensions to ideologically distinguish Israel’s parties. Some distinctions are made according to positions towards specific issues (e.g. the ultraorthodox’ exempt from military service); some are according to traditional left-right orientation (e.g. on liberalization and financial policies), and others according to parties’ approach towards security.32 Security has played a major role ever since the founding of Israel by the UN in 1948, followed by the immediate outbreak of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and subsequent ones in 1967 (‘Six-Day War’) and 1973 (‘Yom Kippur War’). The two Intifadas (Palestinian ‘uprisings’) in 1987 and 2002, the Lebanon Wars in 1982 and 2006, and the 2008 Gaza War, furthered this discourse.33

Further distinction is made between predominantly Palestinian and Jewish parties. Israeli professor Yiftachel introduces another set of categories in his analyses of the 2009 and 2013 elections. His three blocks are 1) colonialist (those opposing a Palestinian State, and in favor of continuing construction of settlements); 2) ethnocratic (those in favor of a two-state solution, but “ambivalent about West Bank settlements,” acknowledging the need to evacuate them, but attempting to preserve territory in adjusted future borders); 3) democratic (those supporting a fully independent , including occupied territory and East Jerusalem, in addition to equal rights for all in a non-Jewish, ‘state of all citizens’, Israel).34

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