As the first official week of the 2013 elections is in full swing, we finally know which parties are running and who their candidates are: no more shocking defections, no more surprise last-minute star-signings. All the parties have launched their campaigns; except for one.
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Unless all the polls are totally wrong, or some very unexpected and sudden shift in the public mood occurs, it’s quite evident that Benjamin Netanyahu will be forming the next government. However, a mere 42 days before the elections, we have yet to learn what shape the campaign of the next prime minister and his party will take. Nor do we even know when it is due to be launched: There are no billboards, no signs on buses, no scheduled campaign events. Even the Likud website is worryingly sparse. The homepage has a photograph of Netanyahu with the anodyne slogan "The Power to Lead," but since it has not appeared anywhere else, it is probably a temporary one.
Likud insiders are giving the following reasons for the delay in the party’s campaign launch:
1. American strategic adviser Arthur Finkelstein believes that a "quiet campaign" is the best tactic for a party already in power and enjoying a comfortable lead in the polls. Since there is no viable alternative on the horizon, attacking any of the Likud's rivals will simply aggrandize them. A party led by the serving prime minister, whose other main candidates are senior ministers, does not have to run a political campaign. Netanyahu and his cabinet colleagues have enough media exposure and can choose to use it for their benefit, as Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar did on Tuesday when the news of Israeli students' success in international tests was published.
2. Likud leaders are still uncertain on the focus of the campaign as it is not yet clear where their biggest threats lay. Labor and Hatnuah are attacking Netanyahu's record and policies from the center-left and may take away some voters, but so far the Likud is losing voters (according to the polls) mainly to Habayit Hayehudi, on its right. So should Likud burnish its right-wing credentials or project a centrist and responsible image? The campaign will be underway once that dilemma is resolved.
3. Another reason not to run a high-profile campaign is that the Likud, according to polls, is less popular than Netanyahu. Party strategists want voters to remain focused on the prime minister, especially as there is no credible challenger in the arena. If the public begins to look too closely at the party behind Netanyahu and compare its candidates with those of the competitors, they may start getting ideas.
4. A political campaign also means publishing some kind of manifesto or platform. But Netanyahu called elections because he could not pass what he called a "responsible” budget in the Knesset. Responsible means adhering to strictly defined spending targets or, in other words, deep and unpopular cuts in social spending. Netanyahu does not want to present a peace plan either; why anger voters on the right? But neither will he, for tactical reasons, totally rule out a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
But the absence of a Likud campaign doesn't mean that Netanyahu and his second-in-command are not starring in these elections. Most of the other main parties are focusing on a mushroom cloud and the slogan – "Bibi will get us in trouble!" while Meretz tried to demonize both Netanyahu and his main rival with a photoshopped image of the prime minister and Labor's Shelly Yacimovich kissing on the mouth (a tribute to the famous Benetton ad).
Yacimovich is trying to distance herself from Netanyahu (although many believe she intends to be a member of his next coalition) with a rather childish slogan, unveiled last week: "Bibi is good for the rich – Shelly is good for you." Livni's Hatnuah embarked this week on a similar tack with "Bibi and Lieberman = Disaster. Livni = Peace" and other variations on this theme (Netanyahu's rivals, without exception, use his nickname in their campaigns.)
Even Shas, Netanyahu's ally, whose leaders have been saying recently in every interview that they are planning to join his coalition after the elections, are using a smug photo of the prime minister with the promise that "Only a strong Shas will take care of the weak."
Likud's rivals are seeking to make this election a referendum on Netanyahu's premiership. Haaretz's latest poll though says that 64 percent of Israelis believe that he is the most suitable candidate for prime minister. By doing that, Livni (24 percent) and Yacimovich (17) will be playing into his hands.