Any complacency in Likud headquarters that Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection was a sure thing evaporated Tuesday with the two polls showing Zionist Union leading Likud by three or four Knesset seats. The erosion in the party’s vote, which was evident a week ago and seemed to have been arrested by Likud’s “bump” after Netanyahu’s Congress speech, has set in again.
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In both polls, Likud is at 21 seats, perilously close to the psychologically crucial 20-seat line below which if Likud dips, few believe it can form the next coalition.
Netanyahu still conceivably has an easier task of building his majority. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog has to bridge the seemingly impossible divide between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to become prime minister. But if the gap continues to grow, Netanyahu will find it very difficult to claim (as he did in 2009 when Likud trailed Kadima by one seat) that the Israeli public has voted for his right-wing/religious camp.
There is one silver lining for Netanyahu in this storm cloud. Its timing is probably too close to the election for Likud’s decline to evolve into a free fall; he still has seven days, including the all-important polling day, to try to reverse trends and win a fourth term. He’s already out there combing Likud strongholds and rallying the troops. Here is Netanyahu’s endgame.
1) Cannibalize the satellites
Traditional Likud voters have been drifting away from the party for two decades now. From the mid-90s on they went primarily to Shas, attracting Mizrahi voters by appealing to their roots and belief in rabbis and Kabala sages.
In the last election, Likud lost another large chunk to Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi. The polls indicate that the party is now losing another tranche to Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu.
The voters’ rationale was that Shas and Habayit Hayehudi would support a Likud government anyway, so they could have it both ways. Kahlon is more opaque regarding his intentions after the election, partly because he’s afraid of scaring off ex-Likud voters by leaning toward Herzog.
Netanyahu will use these polls to urge Likudniks who have gone over to his party’s satellites to return home, threatening them with the prospect of a left-wing government if they don’t vote directly for him. Taking a seat from Shas and a couple from Bennett or Kahlon could be enough to close the gap.
2) Ramp up the fearmongering
Netanyahu won’t be warning voters only of a left-wing government, he’ll be raising the fear factor to 11, linking his challenger to Israel’s worst enemies. He gave his listeners a first taste of that new rhetoric on Monday when warned of “a huge, worldwide effort to topple the Likud.”
Other party activists are already muttering darkly of millions being funneled to the parties of the left, particularly the Israeli-Arab Joint List, from suspicious sources.
In a day or two, there will be reports and unattributed quotes from the Obama administration, the Palestinian Authority and Tehran, all rooting for Herzog. The message will be loud and clear: If you’re not voting Likud, you’re supporting those who seek the destruction of the Jewish state.
3) Pour resources into Election Day
The old cliché that a well-organized bring-out-the-vote operation on Election Day is worth at least a couple of Knesset seats is already being trotted out by Likudniks everywhere. This is still the richest party in Israel, with well-defined traditional strongholds, but many of the activists on the local level have gone over to Kahlon. Money will be the answer.
Contracts for millions of shekels in transportation, banner-hanging, catering and other Election Day activities are going to be promised over the next few days. No one will ever know what proportion of those sums will actually be used for the stated services and how much will go to “vote contractors.”
4) Messages to Kahlon and Rivlin
Even if Likud closes the gap with Zionist Union come March 17, the next day Netanyahu’s fate will be in the hands of two bitter rivals and former members of his own party. Kahlon, who formed Kulanu after realizing that Netanyahu wasn’t planning to promote him to the Finance Ministry, will almost certainly control the seats Netanyahu needs to complete a majority.
And then he needs to convince Reuven Rivlin, the president whose election he worked so hard to prevent, that he has a better chance than Herzog to build a coalition. The message is out already, being broadcast on every frequency. As one veteran Likudnik put it this week: “The national camp won’t forgive Kahlon or Rivlin if they put Labor in power.”
Party activists are particularly pinning their hopes on Kahlon. “He wants to come back to Likud and run for the leadership after Bibi,” says one. “If he wields the knife now, he won’t be king later.”
5) Get ready to change spin at 10 P.M.
Until the polls close, Netanyahu and his lieutenants will be telling right-wingers that Likud must be the largest party to remain in power. The moment exit polls are out at 10 P.M. on March 17, if it emerges that Zionist Union has more seats, the spin will immediately change. Suddenly the Likud spin doctors will say the largest party isn’t an issue but rather the size of the bloc, and Netanyahu’s is so big.