If Monday night’s exit polls are accurate or nearly accurate, half of the Israeli electorate voted for a man set to go on trial in two weeks for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. They did so fully knowing the charges against him, that he had used every dirty trick in the book, and told barefaced lies over and over again. They still voted for him because they trust his leadership more than they trust Israel’s legal system. Certainly more than they trust Benny Gantz.
It was a stunning comeback. In five and a half months, Netanyahu regained all the ground Likud lost between the two elections of 2019 and brought his coalition back to 60 seats – just one lawmaker short of a ruling majority (if the exit polls are correct). The vote-counting process will be nerve-racking, and no one at this point is going to bet against him winning that elusive additional seat.
How did Bibi do it? The answer is simple. This is what he does. He doesn’t lie down after a setback. From the morning after the last election, he was already planning this election campaign. He knew that with 55 seats he wouldn’t be able to form a governing coalition, and his only option was to brazen things out and head for a third election.
He focused on every micro-constituency where he could eke out a few thousand extra votes or a sliver of a percentage point. Ethiopian Israelis, cabdrivers, weed smokers and, even on the eve of Election Day, El Al employees anxious at losing their jobs if the coronavirus crisis decimates the airline industry. He spoke of 300,000 Likudniks who stayed home in September. That number was greatly exaggerated, but even if it was just one-tenth of that, Netanyahu was prepared to go to the ends not just of Israel and the occupied territories but to Washington, Moscow and Kampala, to drag them to the polling stations on Monday.
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He also launched a relentless smear campaign against the strongest challenger he’s faced in over a decade. Gantz was ground down by the barrage of sexual and mental health innuendo, unprecedented in Israeli elections. Under his leadership, Kahol Lavan retained the same share of votes it won in September, but to do so it cannibalized the votes of its left-wing ally, the decimated Labor-Gesher-Meretz, which replaced the voters who went over to Likud.
Gantz, with a lackluster and inconsistent campaign, failed to draw more “soft-right” voters to the opposition bloc. Instead, the gain in September was reversed in Netanyahu’s favor.
The only gain for the opposition was the increased turnout among the Arab community, which, together with shifting voters from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, yielded one or two new seats for the predominantly Arab Joint List. If Netanyahu fails to win an all-out majority, the rest of the opposition should thank Arab Israelis for that and rethink their future strategies.
But if Netanyahu’s bloc is stuck on 60 seats, the long stalemate is not yet over. He undoubtedly won on Monday night, but unless the actual results give him another seat, he still hasn’t got a government and is back where he was after the April election.
It isn’t the same situation, though. He is now bedecked as a winner and the chances are that can get that extra seat, or seats, from defectors from the opposition parties or Gantz, with at least part of Kahol Lavan willing to discard its veto of serving under an indicted prime minister and to join a Netanyahu-led national unity government.
But over the next 48 hours, as the votes are counted, there is a much more urgent question: If Netanyahu gains the 61st seat in the actual results, he will have effectively won a referendum on his legal predicament. A clear majority of Israelis will have voted for an indicted prime minister. In this case, Israel is headed for a constitutional crisis as Netanyahu is determined to evade justice, whether or not his trial begins on March 17. A few thousand votes could make the difference before a purge of Israel’s legal system and the end of prime ministerial accountability to the rule of law.