Fathom Deputy Editor Calev Ben-Dor argues that the election results might come down to whether Benjamin Netanyahu wins a huge bet he has made, one that sounds theoretical but is crucial for his survival: How applicable is a psychological heuristic called the “peak-end rule” to the political realm?
With party lists being prepared and political mergers, acquisitions and resignations aplenty, Israeli elections are about to enter a new phase.
Voters are traditionally thought to prioritize life-and-death issues, but national security threats are currently far from the spotlight. Resolving (or at least alleviating) the conflict with the Palestinians is a footnote at best. Even the so-called existential threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons – and potential tension with the Biden administration over its planned return to the JCPOA nuclear deal – isn’t front and center. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Abu Dhabi may remind voters of his security achievements, but these are unlikely to sway the unconvinced.
Perhaps the political time-out by former chiefs of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, coupled with Benny Gantz’s poor showing in the polls, is a sign of something deeper: that security matters, as well as personalities, no longer have the pull they once did.
The main dividing line in the previous rounds – April 2019, September 2019 and March 2020 – could be summarized as the narrative of “Netanyahu the statesman” on the one hand versus Blue and White’s “responsible, non-corrupt opposition” on the other. But these sound bites seem to have lost their relevancy. Netanyahu continues to promote his leadership qualities, especially over what he terms the small-time “politicians” on the other side. But his Trump card – literally and metaphorically – has disappeared. Ostentatiously displayed signs of a beaming prime minister and the former president have been quietly removed. Perhaps Bibi believes that continued flirtation with individuals who peddle in election-fraud conspiracies and encourage insurrections are not big vote-winners in Israel.
More likely, he simply doesn’t want to be identified with a (sore) loser.
Yet Blue and White’s anti-corruption clarion call also needs refreshing. Protests outside Balfour Street have continued for 32 consecutive weeks. The (oft-delayed) evidentiary stage of Netanyahu’s trial is due to take place next week, and will likely dominate headlines. Yet those previously unimpressed by the accusations – or who see him as Bibi Melech Yisrael, the King of Israel being harassed by the deep state – will not change their minds now.
What does that leave? On one level, it’s (once again) about Bibi or no-Bibi, with the difference that the opposition now appears from within the right-wing camp. Gideon Sa’ar – who unlike Netanyahu voted against the Gaza disengagement and is a genuine supporter of West Bank annexation – will be harder for Likud to tar as a leftist (although they are desperately trying). Sa’ar’s new party coupled with former defense minister Naftali Bennett’s decision to compete for the top job makes it even harder for Netanyahu to form a coalition.
Yet in an age of pandemic, the elections are primarily a referendum on how the government has (mis)handled the deep economic and health crisis. They are also increasingly about curbing the power and influence of the ultra-Orthodox population, whose restriction-flouting actions have generated loathing among broad swaths of the public. If the 2019-2020 elections focused on the government vowing to extend sovereignty over the West Bank, the 2021 version might boil down to a government that promises to apply sovereignty over Israeli cities, especially those so-called ultra-Orthodox autonomous zones, where ultimate authority lies with Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky rather than the cabinet and the Knesset.
Yet on a deeper level, the election results might come down to whether Netanyahu wins a huge bet he has made, one that sounds theoretical but is crucial for his survival: How applicable is a psychological heuristic called the “peak-end rule” to the political realm?
The peak-end rule was developed by one of Israel’s greatest exports: Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, who together with Barbara Fredrickson and Don Redelmeier sought to explain how people retrospectively judge experiences. The team divided up colonoscopy patients into two groups. The first underwent a typical procedure. The second endured the procedure with the scope left in for three additional minutes without being moved, creating a sensation that was uncomfortable, but not painful. When asked to retrospectively evaluate their experiences, patients in the second group rated it as less unpleasant, even though their discomfort lasted for longer.
Kahneman & Co. concluded that rather than individuals basing memories on the total sum of every moment of an experience, they primarily base their memories on their feelings at its most intense point (the peak) and its end.
“What truly matters when we intuitively assess such episodes,” Kahneman explains in Thinking Fast and Slow, “is the progressive deterioration or improvement of the ongoing experience, and how the person feels at the end.” Experiments by psychologist Ed Diener showed that the peak-end rule governs how participants evaluate not only medical procedures or holidays, but an individual’s entire life. As Redelmeier tells Michael Lewis in The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, “Last impressions can be lasting impressions.”
Its arguable the extent to which Israel’s fourth election cycle in two years is comparable to the discomfort of a colonoscopy. But the crux of whether Netanyahu can pull off victory may hinge on the last – and therefore lasting – impression the public has of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
We thus find ourselves in a race between inoculations and infections (in which ironically Netanyahu’s erstwhile ultra-Orthodox allies are making it harder for him to win). If the vast majority of the public is vaccinated by election time – as Netanyahu has promised – their memory of the entire crisis might be positive. The narrative of overcrowded hospitals, mass ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals as well as enormous unemployment figures, may switch to a heroic society blessed with a soon-to-be thriving rebooted economy (while much of Europe still struggles with lockdowns).
This is the ‘Bibi Bet’, or the ‘King’s Gambit’. A battle to shape the public’s memory on a par with Beth Harmon’s struggle against Soviet grandmasters.
We might think it far-fetched that small businesses will forget their losses and be thankful the economy is opening up; or that Arab citizens will put aside Netanyahu’s infamous election day lie that “Arabs are going to the polls in droves” and be lulled by his new charm offensive; or the public at large will overlook the expert advice that was ignored for political reasons, the airport staying open, the selectively enforced lockdowns, and the budget that scandalously wasn’t passed due to Netanyahu’s legal woes.
Yet experts in behavioral economics and the psychology of judgment and decision-making suggest otherwise. After all of Netanyahu’s electoral turnarounds and his historic success at dominating the public agenda, it’s anyone’s guess as to how this story will end.
This essay was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.