November 13, 2019

How to Change the Minds of Israeli Voters

An Israeli voter casts a ballot at an election polling station. Photo by Reuters

Election campaigns in Israel aim to persuade people to change their minds and vote differently than before. This is especially true after a stalemate. In April, Israelis voted for parties that failed to form a coalition. Now some voters must change their minds to avoid another round of elections (and possibly another one …). 

Persuading people to change their minds isn’t easy. Whenever I want to be reminded of that, I return to Tali Sharot’s book “The Influential Mind” (I mentioned this book before in this space). In one of its most revealing paragraphs, Sharot explains that contrary to what many of us might believe, the abundance of available information on every topic doesn’t make us more prone to change our minds; in fact, it makes us more rigid. By using Google, we don’t gather information to form our opinions; we gather information to support our existing opinions. 

Do you believe former President Barak Obama was born in the U.S.? Do you think Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is corrupt? Is President Donald Trump a catalyst for anti-Semitism? Do Palestinians want peace? Do Israelis? Is the two-state solution still viable? Does the United States need more immigrants? Ask a question and get the answer you want. That’s the new world. 

So, how does one party change the minds of Israel’s voters? The answer is trial and error. The Labor Party is trying to use social media but so far, that doesn’t seem to work. The Democratic camp primarily is focused on Netanyahu’s reputed corruption. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is leading a highly charged personal attack on the prime minister. Again, this doesn’t seem like a game-changer. The Blue and White Party is trying civility and unity. The party is losing seats (in the polls). The United Right is using scare tactics: Vote for us, or the Palestinians are coming to get you. This message isn’t attracting new voters.

By using Google, we gather information to support our existing opinions.

Only one leader cracked the code: Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman. He found a sweet spot that combines scare tactics with a message of hope. Scare: If you don’t vote for me, the ultra-Orthodox will make you life miserable by religious coercion. Hope: If you vote for me, you’ll be free of coercion. People tend to move toward pleasure to get away from pain, Sharot explained. 

When we’re scared, we freeze and refrain from action. Lieberman’s scare tactic aims to make people refrain from voting for any party suspicious of future cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox parties. This includes, first and foremost, Likud, but also Blue and White. Lieberman’s guarantee of pleasure — be free, do whatever you want — is the call for action. A call to vote Lamed (Yisrael Beiteinu’s letter on election day).

That Lieberman’s message is working is evident in the polls. I’ll explain why in a future column. His party is expected to rise from five to 10 seats in the Knesset. It was also evident this week when the leaders of Blue and White aired their dirty laundry in public. In the midst of an election season, it suddenly became evident that the main contender for power is split between two factions: the one of Benny Gantz, and the one of Yair Lapid. It also became evident that this split is strongly tied to Lieberman’s success. Blue and White is losing voters to Yisrael Beiteinu. That is fact. It is losing voters because its message is more conciliatory toward the right-Charedi parties. That’s a reasonable assumption. But the leaders of Blue and White disagree how to respond to this development.

Gantz (with Gens. Moshe Yaalon and Gabi Ashkenazi) believe that the day after election day he will need the Charedi parties if he wants to have a shot as forming a majority coalition. He believes that losing a few seats to Lieberman in exchange for having that shot is more than acceptable compromise. Lapid has the opposite view: win first, worry about a coalition second. Lapid is worried that by losing the votes to Lieberman, Blue and White also loses its chance to get the mandate to form the next coalition. 

Is that all? Is this all about tactics? Of course not. Gantz is ideologically more conciliatory toward the Charedi parties; Lapid is ideologically more combative. The tactical rationalization is their version of Googling for proof that their opinion is valid. Apparently, changing people’s minds is difficult not just for us, the regular voters, it is also true for our leaders.