Netanyahu, Herzog Fight Election Day Battle of the Gap

Incumbent warns supporters of large Arab vote, challenger worries over internal polls.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Benjamin Netanyahu in Ashkelon on Election Day, March 17, 2015.
Benjamin Netanyahu in Ashkelon on Election Day, March 17, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Eight hours after polls opened in Israel at 7 A.M., Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met voters for the first time on Election Day Tuesday. The location his campaign and security had agreed upon was a tiny alleyway at the edge of a rundown, garbage-strewn pedestrian mall in Ashkelon. The block had been stripped of every sticker, poster and leaflet of rival parties and long chains of Likud banners were hung over the falafel and cheap clothing shops. But while nearly 200 people milled around for over two hours until Netanyahu arrived, 90 minutes behind schedule, there was no shortage of residents in this old Likud stronghold who were prepared to say they had voted otherwise.

Max Fishboim, who has lived in the town for over 40 years, said, “I have always voted Likud, but you can’t have a person in power for so long when nothing is going forward. Our security hasn’t gotten better and our financial situation has worsened. I’m no left winger. I think we should have hit the Palestinians harder in the summer, but I voted Herzog, though I don’t completely trust him.”

Mazal Nehemia, who was sitting at the same table and has lived all her life in Ashkelon, said, “My entire family is Likudnik and my uncle was close to Menachem Begin, but we need change now.” She proudly shows her smartphone with a photograph sent by her son of a grandchild waving a Zionist Union ballot slip at the entrance to a voting booth this morning.

The crowd, half of them children, wait patiently while local Likud activists hand out popsicles. Finally, the Shin Bet security service bodyguards cordon off the alleyway and the crowd heaves toward the barrier. From behind the black security curtain come Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, who starts hobnobbing with the Likud central committee members.

In previous campaigns, ambitious MKs clustered around Netanyahu at these events, eager to prove their loyalty. Today they are absent. Shalom is no loyalist, but as a seasoned veteran, he sniffs an opportunity to curry some local favor. Who knows, a leadership primary may be just around the corner.

Netanyahu's entrance

Then Netanyahu arrives, caked in heavy makeup and sweltering in a suit and tie, to the sound of the Likud jingle on a little boom box as thousands of ballot slips are thrown in the air like confetti. The crowd tries to catch a glimpse of him but no stage has been prepared, and behind the crush of bodyguards, police officers and photographers, he is invisible. He uses a wireless microphone to talk.

Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni on Election Day, March 17, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod

On the way to Ashkelon he heard the angry reaction to the recorded message his headquarters put out in the morning, in which he said, “The Arabs are voting in droves,” and in Ashkelon he tones it down a bit.

”There is still a gap between Likud and Zionist Union, and if we don’t close the gap there’s a danger that the left’s sectors will bring in a leftist government, supported by the Joint Arab List,” he warns. “There’s nothing wrong with people going to vote, but when it’s organized by millions [of dollars] coming from abroad, we have to confront it by voting Likud.”

Three minutes and he’s done and back in his convoy. Two more minutes and the barriers have been removed and the mall is near-empty. Thousands of ballot slips have been added to the litter.

In one of the nearby pubs, where an old photograph shows a much younger Netanyahu standing with the proud landlord, a patron smiles and shows a ballot slip of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party that he intends to use this evening when he finally gets around to voting.

In previous campaigns, Netanyahu was much quicker in making his way on Election Day to the Likud heartland – the development towns of the northern Negev and low-income neighborhoods in the cities of the southern coastal plain. This morning, however, after voting with Sara in the Paula Ben Gurion School in Rehavia, he spent the next hours giving interviews to morning television shows. This is the new Netanyahu, who has given more interviews to the Israeli media in the last six days than he has in the entire last six years of his premiership. A panicked Netanyahu, anxious to reconnect with the electorate that he fears is slipping away from him.

Israeli party leaders used to make a big show of crisscrossing the country on Election Day, hiring helicopters and entering the towns at the head of large convoys. That custom is dying out. Now they realize that elections are lost and won in television studios and on social media; the handful of visits to loyal strongholds are just for tradition’s sake.

Herzog's new status

Zionist Union’s leaders are not straying far from their comfort zones, either. Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni spent most of the day in greater Tel Aviv, visiting local headquarters and party branches. Herzog, the man who could be prime minister in a few weeks, is now surrounded by a beefed-up Shin Bet detail, a convoy and an advance security team, though he doesn’t get the prime minister’s sterile zone yet. Even Livni waits outside as Herzog emerges from a bulletproof car.

On the morning after their joint announcement that should the party win, Livni is willing to give up her rotation spot as as prime minister, there is a feeling of underlying tension between the two.

When reporters insist on asking about the issue, Livni tersely answers, “I have always done what is best for the country, throughout all my career.” Herzog tries to shift the conversation to mortgages and house prices. Before the press is allowed to ask questions, he steps aside and almost chokes from a paroxysm of coughing, barely contained by the neatly folded and pressed handkerchief he pulls from his pocket. A sympathetic photographer hands him a glass of water.

Election Day is traditionally given over to the local media that still have time to broadcast to potential voters. Herzog and Livni, though, are happy to break this rule and spend valuable minutes with American and British television crews. It’s much more comfortable discussing in English how they will restore relations with the international community, once in power, than answering awkward questions on their political alliance.

But the beast must be fed, and at the last minute a visit to polling centers in traditionally Labor Givatayim is scrubbed and instead they make their way together to the election studios of Ynet and Walla!, popular Israeli websites, for online interviews.

He may be a very different politician to his rival Netanyahu, but Herzog's message and predicament on Election Day is essentially the same. Zionist Union’s internal polling points to a stalemate, and he’s afraid his opponent may be inching ahead. Hurried and harried from location to location, he says to activists, volunteers, voters and reporters, “Netanyahu is trying to close the gap. We have to keep the gap. If you want us in government, make sure we have the gap.”

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