Polls and Prejudice: Why So Many Got the Israeli Elections So Wrong

A version of this column appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Feb. 20, 2013.
The Forward has absolved itself.

Although editors of the Jewish daily now admit they “got it wrong” by getting caught up in the media frenzy about hardline Israeli politician Naftali Bennett, temporary poster boy for the Israeli politics’ presumptive surge to the right, they concluded after some thought that “all those whose predictions were off deserve a break.”

“In our defense,” they explained last month, shortly after the Israel elections, “we only reflected the consistent message from Israeli pollsters” who failed to predict that the actual surge would be toward the political center.

In their defense, too, The Forward’s profile of Bennett avoided some of the more heated, self-certain exclamations seen in pre-election coverage of Israel. A Guardian columnist spoke of Israel’s “lurch to what was once deemed the lunatic fringe,” The Nation called it a “Lurch to the Right,” Reuters “a far-right surge” and NPR a “Move to the Right.” The list goes on.

But it was David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, who delivered what might have been the most overconfident and protracted pieces on the topic. Before the first vote was cast, Remnick insisted that “the story of the election is the implosion of the center-left” and substantiated this assessment with 9000 carefully chosen words.

It turned out, of course, that Reminck was flatly wrong.

He was not the only one whose jeremiad turned out to be a false prophecy. And like The Forward editors, he later made sure to remind critics that he was simply reflecting Israel polls, which had also overestimated support for right-wing parties. But ineffective polling results fail to fully explain the eagerness and certitude with which the Western press, Remnick at the lead, pounced on the “rightward shift” frame.

After all, as the The Forward explained, “public polling in Israel is deeply flawed,” in part because pollsters rely on landlines, which effectively exclude “huge swaths of the population.” And of course, this was just as true before the rush to denounce Israel’s supposed rightward lurch as it was after the elections. Likewise, the popular sentiments that contributed to the success of Israel’s new centrist party, Yesh Adid, were there before the elections, ready to be explored or ignored by pundits like Remnick. But the Israeli center was largely ignored.

It seems the temptation to focus on a far-right Israeli bogeyman was just too strong for those journalists eager to cast Israel as the source of all troubles in the Middle East. To this end, Remnick’s table-banging about the far-right in Israel allowed him to brush aside serious concerns held by mainstream, centrist Israelis: the Palestinian rejection of peace offers; the rise of terror groups in territory evacuated by Israel; the thousands of rockets launched by Palestinians at Israeli civilians in violation of international law. Much more than Bennett’s small far-right party, these fundamental realities must be understood by anyone hoping to make sense of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But Remnick dismissed them as evidence of Israeli stubbornness, part of what he described as the “ingrained” narrative of “most Israelis,” who he says “no longer care” about Palestinian views.

Just as an obsession with Israel’s far right allows pundits to ignore the country’s sober centrists, it also makes it all too easy to ignore the Palestinian share of responsibility for the conflict. In Remnick’s piece, the region’s “xenophobes” are all Israeli Jews. So are the “unapologetic racists.” And the right wingers. And the religious. And the messianic. Even the terrorists are mostly Israeli. (Helpful hint: Whenever you come across an article that glosses over Palestinian violence but reaches into the sparse history of Israeli terrorism to discuss Baruch Goldstein, whose horrendous crime occurred nearly 20 years ago, and Meir Kahane, the American firebrand who was killed even before that, ask yourself why the writer opted to present so selective a history.)

Palestinians, meanwhile, are afflicted not by radical Islamism, not by anti-Jewish sentiments, not by a leadership that inculcates inflexibility regarding the so-called right of return and explicitly rejects two states for two peoples, but merely by “frustration” and “anxiety” imposed on them by their enemy.

In short, caricaturing Israel makes it possible to caricature the Palestinians. The false diagnosis of an Israel veering uncontrollably to the right helps sustain the fashionable but unhelpful view the Palestinians have no active role in the conflict, and no responsibility for its course. How straightforward it all is in Remnick’s telling: “Israel’s hard-liners harden further. The Palestinians grow more frustrated.”

This might be an easier story to tell, and it might be an easier story to believe. But it is not what readers want and deserve: a fair assessment of the conflict.

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