Netanyahu’s Manic Panic Is Proof the Election Race Is Far From Over

Bibi seems the safest bet, but Herzog could still be the winner and even Lapid should not be discounted if a big surprise emerges, as it usually does.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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CartoonCredit: Eran Wolkowski
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

One of the Hebrew equivalents of the famous saying “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” is “It ain’t over till the sailors’ votes are in.” The quip refers to the fact that the official results of elections cannot be announced before late ballots cast by Israeli sailors out at sea - as well as other Israelis officially serving abroad – are counted. But it’s usually said merely in jest: the small number of the latecomers can only make a difference if the vote is extraordinarily close.

Nonetheless, it is an caveat to keep in mind as one hears the growing chorus of Israeli pollsters and analysts who regard Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection as prime minister as a foregone conclusion, Tuesday’s damning State Comptroller’s report notwithstanding. Because if there one thing that can be said with near certainty, it is that there is going to be a big surprise in the upcoming March 17 elections, which could very well influence who the next prime minister will be. It’s a safe bet, because big surprises have been the norm rather than the exception in many Israeli elections held in recent years.

After all, no one foresaw the “revolution” (mahapakh) of 1977, which brought Menachem Begin to power; no one foretold the defeat of Shimon Peres by Begin in 1981 or Yitzhak Shamir in 1984 and hardly anyone imagined his loss to Netanyahu in 1996; no one envisioned that Shas would get 17 Knesset seats in 1999, or that Yosef Lapid, Yair’s father, would get 15 in 2003, or that a pensioners’ party would get 7 in 2006 or that the younger Lapid would get 19 in 2013. The pollsters, analysts and experts may all be experienced and wise, but the Israeli voter always gets the last, surprising word.

It’s not that the prediction of Netanyahu’s inevitable victory is groundless. Far from it: the polls show a built-in majority for Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition; the prime minister’s main rival, Isaac Herzog, has failed to show the kind of charisma that inspires confidence in his possible triumph; and the news, including the upcoming Congressional crescendo, always seems to break in Netanyahu’s favor. The only question supposedly remaining is whether Netanyahu will opt for a right-wing narrow coalition or prefer a more centrist national unity government.

Hardly anyone considers the movement of 5-6 Knesset seats from the right to the center-left to be plausible anymore; no one seems to be considering the possibility that one of the two big parties can lose 2-3 seats compared to their current standings in the poll and the other one gain them, creating a gap that will be impossible to ignore, no matter how big their respective blocs; or the chances that one hitherto discounted party will enjoy a late surge that will upset all the current calculations: or that centrists such as Moshe Kachlon or even Avigdor Lieberman, as well as the ultra-Orthodox parties, won’t feel bound by their pre-election commitment to recommend that Netanyahu be the president’s first choice to set up a new government.

All of these predictions also assume that the unique phenomena of the 2015 elections won’t change the known scenarios: That the emergence of the first united Arab list in Israeli history won’t create a dramatic surge in voter participation of Israeli Arabs; that the highest-ever threshold of 3.25% won’t block any serious contenders and thus won’t eliminate chunks of Knesset seats for either side; that the flood of negative publicity having to do with Netanyahu’s splurges and personal behavior won’t have any effect on the voters or that Netanyahu’s grand gamble of addressing Congress two weeks before the elections won’t make much difference one way or another.

But if any proof is needed that it’s way too early to tell and the jury is still out, it is provided on an almost daily basis by the erratic behavior of Netanyahu himself, which exudes less confident complacence and more manic panic. The prime minister, after all, is an expert at reading the polls and a first class maven of underlying trends. Even if one accepts the logic and ignores what seems to be the utter recklessness of his clash with Obama and speech to Congress, one has to contend with his bizarre personal Facebook mudslinging on Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes; with his outrageously inciting TV spot, a travesty even by Netanyahu’s own historically-lax standards, which associates his Zionist Camp rivals with Islamic State; with his rash decision on Tuesday to blame his disgruntled former housekeeper, who seems quintessentially Israeli, for the string of irregularities uncovered by the Comptroller; or with his acquiescence with the truly ludicrous televised tour of his dilapidated official home in Jerusalem, which resembled a subversive parody put on by his rivals.

Netanyahu might know something that we don’t, and he is cognizant in any case of Donald Rumsfeld famous warning against the things that we don’t even know we don’t know. Among the latter, one can count the often-submerged subterranean movements in the public that emerge just in time for election day, with no prior warning in advance, though they all seem perfectly plausible with the benefit of hindsight.

Most scenarios end with Netanyahu returning to power, but a fair number still have Herzog winning and it’s not completely out of the question that even Yair Lapid might be the next prime minister, if he combines a last-minute surge, which seems increasingly likely, with a post-election alliance with the popular Moshe Kachlon.

It ain’t over till it’s over, Yogi Berra said, and, despite the conventional wisdom, it ain’t over yet. Especially in Israel’s peculiarly proportionate system, where the drama often starts after all the votes are in and the sailors have been counted.

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