Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, won votes from moderate Likud… (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images )
JERUSALEM — With elections looming, waitress Gal Har-Gaash, 21, favored a strong, conservative leader like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud Party.
Long-time liberal Yakov Castro, 38, was attracted by Labor Party Chair Shelly Yachimovich’s promise to lower Israel’s high cost of living.
But when they cast their votes in Tuesday’s national election, both reached the same conclusion: pick the newly formed centrist party Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid.
Har-Gaash said she thought Netanyahu’s ruling party was a shoo-in for reelection, so she voted for Lapid and Yesh Atid in the hopes that the former TV journalist would join the next coalition government and prevent it from drifting too far to the right.
Castro also thought the Likud Party would win, so when Yachimovich announced she would boycott a Netanyahu-led government he worried that Labor would render itself irrelevant. That’s when he decided to back Lapid.
Israelis call it “strategic voting,” and it’s one of the reasons elections here almost always include last-minute surprises, such as this year’s second-place finish by Yesh Atid. It won 19 seats, twice the number most pollsters predicted.
The practice is a side effect of Israel’s volatile parliamentary system, in which even the strongest political parties almost never win a Knesset majority and are forced to form a coalition with rivals.
So rather than vote their hearts or ideology, many Israelis try to game the system, second-guessing which parties will be in the government, what influence they’ll have and where their vote will have the most impact.
No one’s sure how many Israelis vote this way, but it is believed to be one of the reasons so many voters are undecided until the last minute. In a poll published by the newspaper Maariv on Friday, 21% of voters said they didn’t make up their mind until election day, and another 41% were unsure just days before.
It now appears that many of those undecided votes drifted to Lapid, a political newcomer who staked out a middle ground and signaled a willingness to serve in the next government, pollsters say.
“Israelis are too smart for themselves sometimes,” said Mitchell Barak, head of the political consulting firm Keevoon Research Strategy and Communications. “They think too much about it. But in this case, it helped Lapid a lot because in the end, people want their voice heard at the cabinet table.”
Strategic voting is believed to have been more prevalent in this week’s election because of the relative lack of competition facing Netanyahu. Since nearly everyone expected Netanyahu and his party to win, his supporters felt free to cast their votes for someone else, analyst said.
The key beneficiaries of this trend were Lapid, who won support from moderate Likud members who hoped he would soften Netanyahu’s policies, and the pro-settlement Jewish Home, which attracted more hawkish Likud voters who wanted to pull Netanyahu to the right. Jewish Home, which opposes Palestinian statehood, won 12 seats.
"The challenge for us was that there was no energy on our side because there was no opposition on the other side," said Atlanta political consultant George Birnbaum, who worked with Republican Party strategist Arthur Finkelstein in advising the Likud slate.
“This created a malaise among voters on the right because everyone assumed Netanyahu was going to win,’’ said Birnbaum, a former Netanyahu chief of staff. He noted that opinion polls showed voters saw no credible alternative to Netanyahu as prime minister. “It allowed them to vote for other issues on their radar, whether that was drafting the ultra-Orthodox or housing costs.”
Yachimovich, the newly installed Labor leader, apparently was another victim of strategic voting, particularly after she announced her planned boycott. Labor, which was expected to win 18 or 19 seats, got 15 in the final count.
“Labor Party says all the right things about the economy,’’ said long-time Labor voter Castro, who lives in Abu Ghosh. “But they said in advance they wouldn’t join the government, so how can they bring change and make things better?”
In the end, the right-wing bloc won 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, while 59 seats went to center-left parties.
Politicians often encourage strategic voting in their speeches and campaign ads.
Yachimovich, for example, urged left-leaning voters to abandon smaller leftist parties and vote Labor instead because most of those parties would not receive the minimum number of votes needed to win a seat. Under Israel’s election rules, votes for parties that don’t qualify are thrown out. In the past election, discarded votes were enough for more than three Knesset seats.