Monday July 28, 2014
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28.07.2014
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Yossi Beilin

Pre-election surprises

In the final days before an election, events may take place that will effect the results, or at least try to influence them. Some of these are external events, independent of our own political actors; yet some of them are last minute attempts by individuals or parties to foment change that will increase support for them. This happens especially when the poll results are close and it seems like a dramatic statement or far-reaching act could actually tip the balance.

There is no room for rational thought in the final stretch before an election. Candidates are feeling pressured and ready to do things they hadn't initially planned to do in efforts to increase their chances of winning. Events that take place right before an election — words uttered by this or that candidate, or an act that would otherwise go unnoticed — sometimes turn into historic events that linger in our national memory without any objective justification.

In 1961, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided to launch the Shavit 2 meteorological research rocket just before the elections. Despite all of the public excitement, it was seen by all as merely a desperate attempt by Mapai (the left-wing Zionist socialist party established in the 1930s, precursor to the Labor party), who would have taken the elections anyway, to avoid losing Knesset seats. It didn't help. Elections were moved up that year due to the Lavon affair (a failed Israeli covert operation in Egypt) and Mapai's power shrunk anyway.

The 1981 election was the most tense the state had ever known. At the beginning of the election process, it seemed that Ma'arach had a clear advantage over Likud; political rallies became violent and tense. Political accusations were lobbed back and forth in an unprecedented manner and each side devised a plan to ensure victory.

Elections were scheduled for June 30. On June 7, Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor. It was a very successful military operation accompanied by a lot of public debate as to whether or not it was a wise move; but then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin managed to present it as a big success story, which strengthened his position.

Ahead of the same election, on June 25, Shimon Peres, then the head of Ma'arach, made the surprise announcement that when he wins the election and assembles a coalition he will bestow the position of Defense Minister on his longtime political rival Yitzhak Rabin and not Haim Bar-Lev, as many had expected. It was a dramatic and surprising announcement in light of the well-known enmity between Peres and Rabin; the announcement was made based on polls predicting that Rabin as defense minister would increase Peres' chances of winning.

But the most extreme event in the lead-up to that election was, without a doubt, the silly remark made by a young actor, Dudu Topaz, on June 26 at a rally. Topaz joked about a lack of "chach chachim" (a derogatory term for mizrahi youth) in the crowd. The following day, June 27, Begin gave a speech in Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv (today Rabin Square) manipulating Topaz's words into incredible leverage for himself, accusing the election cycle of being racist. Four days later, he won by a single seat.

In 1988, Labor and Likud were almost tied in the polls. The election took place on November 1. On October 30, terrorists attacked a bus in Jericho with Molotov cocktails; a mother and her three children were killed. The Likud won the election by a single seat. In 1992, it was the murder of Helena Rapp in Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, by a young man from Gaza, that strengthened Yitzhak Rabin against Yitzhak Shamir. Rabin promised to take Gaza out of Tel Aviv and won big.

What shall we conclude from this? It is difficult to really draw solid conclusions from our election experience. Not every election is preceded by an extreme and influential event. However, each of these events can become a 300 pound gorilla if they take place in the last week before an election. If it is an external event, there is nothing we can do about it; if it's up to the parties, though, they will do anything they can to avoid making any gaffes while hoping that their opponents will do or say something that they can make a big deal of.

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