The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel is voting — for the third time in a year. That’s polarizing voters even more.

Here’s how to undo some of the social damage from divisive campaigns

Election campaign banners hang on a wall in Jerusalem. One depicts Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, and the other depicts Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, and Ahmad Tibi, co-leader of the Joint List, an Arab party, in Jerusalem this month. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

For the third time in a year, Israel is holding elections. On March 2, Israelis will head to the polls to elect representatives for the 23rd Knesset, Israel’s parliament. But drastic change in the distribution of seats across parties seems unlikely. Israel remains gripped by a political deadlock, and neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party nor Benny Gantz of the center-left Blue and White party have had enough seats to form a governing coalition in the previous two elections. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has advocated the formation of a national unity government to break the impasse, to no avail.

Until this deadlock is resolved, Israel continues to be governed by a transitional government under Netanyahu, which is spending hundreds of millions of dollars running elections, resulting in political frustration each time. Many Israelis are worrying about the implications for healthy functioning of democratic governance.

Repeated elections may be exacerbating — not simply reflecting — political polarization

Our recent research in Israel suggests that exposure to electoral competition polarizes voters. Therefore, these repeated elections are likely to heighten partisan polarization, and thus may be making it harder for politicians to justify any cooperation across party lines. That means that the conditions for forming a unity government might only become more difficult after the upcoming elections.

However, an experiment we ran with eligible Israeli voters as part of our research suggests that forming a unity government could minimize animosity between right- and left-wing voters. This suggests that if politicians can cooperate across parties to form a unity government, they may be able to undo some of the social damage created by repeated elections.

Here’s how we did our research

To determine how electoral competition shapes polarization, we analyzed public opinion data from the Israeli National Election Study (INES) since 2001. Over the tail end of each election cycle, the INES randomly samples Israeli voters to participate in telephone surveys. This allows us to compare voters who are, on average, similar, but during different elections, at different points of time. Doing so, we found that as elections approach and the salience of electoral competition increases, right- and left-wing voters become more polarized.

But can a unity government unite the people?

Can unity governments, in which left-leaning and right-leaning parties join to govern, promote cooperation and depolarize the electorate? We take up this question in the second part of our working paper.

Political scientists have suggested that “kinder and gentler” institutions that promote cooperation across members of different groups can facilitate stability and tolerance. However, finding evidence for this is challenging. If there’s a unity government and the electorate isn’t polarized, that doesn’t mean the unity government promoted tolerance. It could be, instead, that when left- and right-wing voters feel tolerance across party lines, it’s easier for the parties to cooperate.

To address this concern, we conducted a simple experiment after the most recent elections, when parties were bargaining about coalition formation, and the future of the Israeli Knesset was still unclear. Specifically, we targeted 1,524 eligible voters from a representative sample of Israeli Internet users recruited by IPanel, Israel’s largest opt-in survey firm. As part of our experiment, we informed some survey respondents that a unity government will probably form in the near future, whereas other respondents were told that a narrow government will probably form in the near future. Respondents told there’d soon be a unity government reported less polarized attitudes. That suggests that cooperation between the parties may indeed promote voters’ tolerance across party lines.

Looking ahead

In the upcoming days, Israelis will probably be barraged with divisive campaign rhetoric, which our research suggests increases partisan polarization. However, if the election delivers another divided result, right- and left-wing politicians may wish to overcome the deadlock and form a unity government. Doing so, politicians may be able to mitigate some of the animosity caused by recurring exposure to electoral competition over the past year. But the tone of the campaign suggests that this is unlikely.

Lotem Bassan-Nygate is a PhD student in the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Twitter: @BassanNygate

Chagai M. Weiss is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and a research affiliate of the Elections Research Center. Twitter: @chagai_weiss