Likud Braces for Impact Ahead of Expected Netanyahu Indictment

The party fears it could lose five Knesset seats once attorney general announces decision, and is saving every shekel to fight the charges via advertisements, text messages and social media campaigns

Netanyahu speaking in Jerusalem on February 21, 2019
\ Moti Milrod

The Likud party fears it could lose five Knesset seats once Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announces his decision to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pending a hearing. Party members worry that people will turn away not necessarily because of the charges themselves, but because of the uncertainty the announcement will create about Netanyahu’s political future.

Likud has been preparing for this day for a long time, and has numerous video clips and text messages ready to explain its position. Over the past several months, the campaign has tested the effectiveness of several slogans, including “house of cards,” “rigged cases,” “bribery without money” and “political persecution.”

Likud is expected to argue that the indictment is part of a world-spanning effort by “the left and the media” to topple Netanyahu over trivialities “that nobody would stand trial for in another country.”

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Because of its size, Likud has a larger campaign budget than other parties – around 45 million shekels ($12.4 million). The party has been saving every shekel in anticipation of Mendelblit’s announcement; it hasn’t even rented offices for its campaign staff. Instead, the money will be used to fight the charges via advertisements, text messages and social media campaigns.

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After a period in which Netanyahu frequently attacked Mendelblit, he decided to step back from such attacks due to polls showing that the attorney general is popular with the public. 

Thus Mendelblit is expected to figure in Likud’s campaign not as someone actively participating in a judicial coup, but as the victim of others who conspired against him until he collapsed under the pressure.

The Kahol Lavan joint ticket, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, is also preparing for Mendelblit’s announcement, and party leaders kept a low profile this week to focus on these preparations. Their  strategic plan has Likud voters moving to Kahol Lavan when Mendelblit announces.

The high price the Kahol Lavan party paid to acquire former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who holds the third slot on the joint ticket, was intended to make Likud voters feel they aren’t moving from right to left, but just to another room in the same house. 

Mendelblit’s announcement will also be the signal for Gabi Ashkenazi, the third of the party’s trio of former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff (alongside Gantz and Ya’alon), to enter the fray. Since joining Kahol Lavan, Ashkenazi has given no interviews or speeches other than very brief remarks at the event launching the joint ticket. But Kahol Lavan officials say Ashkenazi is very popular among that segment of Likud voters whom the joint ticket hopes to attract.

Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party has also recently altered its campaign to prepare for Mendelblit’s announcement. Kulanu’s main issue is economics, and just a month ago, it launched a major campaign for subsidized day care under the slogan “Kahlon – the only one who cares.” 

But it has now adopted a new slogan – “the sane right.” And its campaign posters show Kahlon alongside former prime minister and Likud leader Menachem Begin in an effort to portray Kahlon as Begin’s true heir. 

Kulanu’s new campaign is based on polls showing that until now, the party hasn’t been sufficiently identified with the right to attract Likud voters who want to switch parties after Mendelblit’s announcement. Kulanu thinks this announcement could cost Likud up to 10 seats.