Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves from the stage as he reacts to exit poll figures in Israel's parliamentary elections late on March 17, 2015 in the city of Tel Aviv. Netanyahu claimed victory in elections as exit polls put him neck-and-neck with centre-left rivals after a late fightback in his bid for a third straight term. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZJACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Netanyahu claims victory in Israeli elections
02:34 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Polls predicted a tight race coming down to the wire, with Netanyahu in a virtual tie with Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union party

But actual results show Netanyahu running away with the election

Possible causes: Poll methodology, Netanyahu's last-minute turn to the right

Jerusalem CNN  — 

Either Benjamin Netanyahu just staged the most dramatic political comeback in Israeli history and beyond, or something was very wrong with the polls before and during the election.

Polls predicted a tight race coming down to the wire, with Netanyahu in a virtual tie with his main challenger, Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union party.

Only four days before the election, polls showed Herzog taking a four-seat lead into the final weekend before the election. Exit polls on the night of the election showed Netanyahu had closed the gap. The polls suggested he was in a dead heat, with a very even split between right-wing and left-wing parties.

Then came the results. Not more polls or surveys, but actual counts from the ballot boxes. Netanyahu wasn’t in a fight for his political life after all. He was the clear winner, running away with the election and facing a fairly clear path to create a coalition government. Although the results are unofficial, it seems almost certain that Netanyahu will remain the Israeli prime minister.

Flawed methodology?

Avi Degani, a pollster, professor at Tel Aviv University and president of the Geocartography Knowledge Group, saw very different results from his own polls. He never anticipated a Zionist Union victory. Instead, he says, he always saw Likud holding a lead. The mistake that others made, according to Degani, was in the methodology.

“The Internet does not represent the state of Israel and the people of Israel,” he said, referring to modern statistical methods. “It represents panels, and the panels are biased strongly to the center – Tel Aviv, better-educated, more participants in this kind of conversation. And people who are in the periphery and so on and have the stronger tendency to vote Likud, I think, are poorly represented.”

“I have tested sometimes at the same night, doing by telephone as I do always – and very specifically geographically, and very well-weighted and very well, having cell phones and other phones and so on – and at the same time I did on the Internet. And I got results which are very, very different.”

But Mina Tzemach, the polling expert for CNN affiliate Channel 2 Israel, suggests Netanyahu was in a tight race the entire way and managed to close the gap “like a magician,” using the election polls as his final trick.

“The polls showed that they are going to lose. It gave very important information both to the public and to the politicians. Netanyahu used it,” said Tzemach. “Many voted what we call strategic voting. They did not vote to the party that is their first preference, but they voted for the Likud.”

Likud voters did not participate in exit polls, according to Tzemach, and that skewed the results, leading many to believe that Herzog had tied Netanyahu.

“We had ballots in an area where there are a lot of immigrants from the former Soviet Union,” explained Tzemach. “In these ballots, more than 30% did not participate in our polls, and they are Likud supporters.”

A move to the right

Another factor that may have worked in Netanyahu’s favor was his Likud party cannibalizing votes from other right-wing parties.

In the days before the election, Netanyahu moved to the political right, making a big push for right-wing voters to choose his party over other ideologically similar parties, such as Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. During the weekend before the election, Netanyahu took part in a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv’s central Rabin Square. He continued his shift to the right in a series of interviews with local media leading up to the election.

His most controversial statement came the day before the elections when he reversed his publicly stated position on a two-state solution. “Anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state, anyone who is going to evacuate territories today, is simply giving a base for attacks to the radical Islam against Israel,” he said in a television interview. “This is the true reality that was created here in the last few years.”

In 2009, in a speech known as the Bar Ilan speech, Netanyahu committed to negotiations for a two-state solution, saying, “Let us begin peace negotiations immediately without prior conditions. Israel is committed to international agreements, and expects all sides to fulfill their obligations. I say to the Palestinians: We want to live with you in peace, quiet, and good neighborly relations.”

Tzemach estimates that Likud took four seats from Jewish Home and two more seats from Yachad, a party that did not receive enough votes to warrant inclusion in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

History repeats itself

Exit polls in Israel have been wrong before. In the most recent elections in 2013, exit polls showed Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party winning between 12 and 13 seats in the Knesset. But when the final results were tallied, Lapid won 19 seats, becoming a major player in the government.

This time, the unexpected surprise worked in Netanyahu’s favor, turning the campaign race into an election night rout. Likud had never polled better than approximately 25 seats, but it grabbed at least 29 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, according to unofficial numbers from the Israeli election committee based on 99% of the vote.

Netanyahu has worked this sort of magic once before. In the 1996 elections, early results showed the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres as the winner, but as more results came in, Netanyahu eked out a victory by fewer than 1% of the votes.

Degani said this election reveals the truth behind Israeli politics. “This last election it showed very clearly that we do not have right and left. We have only right and extreme right, which is not nice sometimes. And in the right, you have the Likud mostly, and in the Likud, you have mostly Netanyahu.”