Benjamin Netanyahu's racist remarks may have swung Israeli election, pollster finds

Top Israeli pollster says that Netanyahu was losing on Election Day -- until his notorious jibe at Arabs

Published March 25, 2015 1:47PM (EDT)

  (AP/Cliff Owen)
(AP/Cliff Owen)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's naked appeal to anti-Arab racism may have been key in his rightist Likud party's victory last week, according to a top Israeli pollster.

The Times of Israel reports that pollster Mina Tzemach's surveys showed Likud trailing the center-left Zionist Union on Election Day, March 17, until Netanyahu posted a video to Facebook warning supporters, ”The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are bussing them out.”

While the Zionist Union, led by Labor party leader Isaac Herzog, had been leading Likud by three to four parliamentary seats at noon local time, the tide turned in Likud's favor after the video posted at 12:23 p.m. By 5 p.m., Tzemach's polls showed Likud moving into a tie with the Zionist Union, and her 10 p.m. exit poll showed Likud claiming 28 seats in the 120-member Knesset to the Zionist Union's 27 seats.

Like other exit polls, that result actually understated Likud's performance. Netanyahu's party claimed 30 seats, easily besting the Zionist Union's 24. Combining with smaller right-wing and Orthodox parties, Netanyahu boasts the governing majority needed to form a new coalition.

Although Netanyahu's remarks were widely condemned -- including by President Obama, who said that they were "contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions" -- many observers questioned whether they proved decisive in Netanyahu's stronger-than-expected performance. While correlation does not prove causation, Tzemach's data indicate that the possibility shouldn't be discounted.

Nearly one week after his victory, Netanyahu apologized for his remarks, telling a group of Arab leaders on Monday that he was sorry for the offense he caused.

Still, Netanyahu's resort to racist appeals -- and his 11th-hour declaration that there would be no Palestinian state on his watch -- have the White House contemplating a recalibration of its relations with Israel's government. While vowing to continue military and intelligence cooperation with Israel, Obama told the Huffington Post's Sam Stein that the U.S. is considering an array of diplomatic options, which may include allowing the Palestinians to win statehood at the United Nations.

By Luke Brinker

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Arabs Benjamin Netanyahu Israel Israeli Elections Likud Polls Racism Zionist Union