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Six Election Sideshows That Will Determine Netanyahu’s Fate

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Netanyahu delivers a speech in Jerusalem, June 13, 2019.
Netanyahu delivers a speech in Jerusalem, June 13, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

With the campaign entering its final stage now the parties have finalized their candidate slates, attention will switch to the election’s main issue: Will Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and the other parties that still support him win a majority on September 17?

And if, as the polls are indicating, the Netanyahu coalition falls short, can any other government be formed?

The election’s outcome won’t only be determined by the Bibi question. A number of other issues, or sideshows, will decide how the vote is distributed. Sadly, these issues are devoid of ideology and are just as much about personalities and politics. Here are some of them.

Is there a fight for the “Russian” vote?

Netanyahu and Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, July 14, 2019.Credit: Haim Zach / GPO

One of the most under-polled segments of Israeli society is the recently arrived immigrant community from the former Soviet Union. The new enmity between Netanyahu and former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party relies on these “Russian” votes, has led Netanyahu to try to whittle away at Lieberman’s power base. To this end, he has given interviews to the Russian-Israeli media (none to the Hebrew media so far), met new immigrants just off the plane from Ukraine and put a giant banner of him and President Vladimir Putin on the side of Likud’s Tel Aviv headquarters. (Though this may have been an attempt to impress veteran Israelis as well.)

From the latest opinion polls, this tactic doesn’t seem to be working. Likud is losing support and Yisrael Beiteinu has doubled its tally of projected seats in the Knesset. But just how good is that polling? Does Netanyahu have better private polling that tells him the immigrants who usually vote for Lieberman can be easily enticed away?

Does Kahol Lavan have staying power?

Kahol Lavan’s 35-seat tie with Likud in the April 9 election wasn’t enough to make its leader, former army chief Benny Gantz, prime minister. It would have been much more impressive if the new centrist party had racked up those seats at the expense of Likud rather than cannibalizing them from the opposition parties to the left, Labor and Meretz. And it will be even more impressive if Kahol Lavan can recreate that achievement, since new centrist parties in Israel have failed to perform as well on their second electoral foray.

Why would the 26 percent of voters who chose Kahol Lavan change their minds? For a start, there’s the very lackluster performance of the party’s leaders since the April election and in the early stages of the current campaign. Then there’s the emergence of an attractive option on the left in the shape of Democratic Union, the link-up of Meretz, Labor defector Stav Shaffir and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Centrist voters are notoriously fickle. Will Kahol Lavan use the same strategy as last time and try to take voters from fellow members of the opposition, rather than try to peel them away from Likud?

Can Labor survive?

Labor's Amir Peretz, flanked by Itzik Shmuli and Gesher's Orli Levi-Abekasis, announce their joint slate, July 28, 2019. Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

The party’s old-new leader Amir Peretz has embarked on a controversial course by joining forces with Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party and refusing a similar alliance with Meretz or Barak’s party. He also lost one of Labor’s biggest stars when Shaffir defected. There are reports that he’s losing thousands of other party members as well, many of them angry at how Peretz has shuffled Labor’s candidate slate without regard to the party primary earlier this year.

In the April election, it seemed Labor had fallen as low as it ever could, winning only six seats. Now the party that founded the state and ruled it for half its existence is legitimately worried about falling below the 3.25-percent electoral threshold into oblivion. This will be a tragedy not only for a once grand party but for the chances of replacing the government as well. If Labor’s seats are lost, Netanyahu may yet achieve his majority without Lieberman.

Will United Right pay a price?

Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich, Rafi Peretz and Naftali Bennett have managed to overcome their differences and unite the three main parties of the religious-Zionist right into one slate. They were prepared to bring in the neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party too, but the dispute over where its leader Itamar Ben-Gvir would fit in kiboshed a last-minute deal. The new United Right is now tainted by the racists without even getting their votes, as Otzma Yehudit will run alone (and almost certainly fail to cross the threshold).

There will be a price to pay either way. First, there are relatively moderate religious voters who would have chosen the Shaked-Bennett ticket but are repelled by Shaked’s public affirmation of the Kahanists as potential partners. And there are voters from the other extreme who blame mainly Bennett for foiling the larger tie-up.

People dismayed by how far a once-respectable religious party has let itself be swept to the extremes will be looking for an alternative. Likud isn’t an option because it was Netanyahu who tried to foist Otzma Yehudit onto his partners. Kahol Lavan, with its own religious and right-wing representatives who attacked the proposed deal, could perhaps capitalize.

Can Joint List dispel apathy in the Arab community?

The Joint List's Mansour Abbas, Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi launch their campaign in Nazareth, July 27, 2019.Credit: Rami Shllush

The Joint List of Arab parties has finally managed to recreate the four-party alliance of 2015 after splitting in April into two tickets. It now faces an uphill struggle to repeat its other achievement of 2015: an election turnout in the Arab community nearly equal to that of the general population.

In the April election, the Israeli-Arab turnout plummeted by a quarter and it won’t be easy to get a jaded electorate back to the polls. In recent years, Arab politicians have been intensely criticized within their own community for grandstanding and not prioritizing their voters’ immediate concerns. There are growing calls for Joint List’s leaders to take a more active role in the campaign to replace Netanyahu, even though Gantz continues to cold-shoulder them. If they reenergize the Arab community, as they did in 2015, it will mean not only more seats for them but also a larger opposition that can damn Netanyahu’s prospects of regaining his majority.

Can Likud turn around Bibi fatigue?

In every campaign since 2015, Likud’s strategists have known from their focus groups that their biggest enemy is their voters’ Bibi fatigue. Many traditional Likud voters are either convinced that Netanyahu will win anyway or aren’t particularly bothered if someone else gets a chance to be prime minister. The solution has been to scare these voters with the prospect of a left-wing government supported by “droves of Arabs.” The fearmongering turned out the Likud vote in the final hours before the polls closed. Can it work a third time running?

The Likud campaign, however, has a major obstacle this time around in the shape of Lieberman, who no matter what Netanyahu says will never be seen as a leftist and who has repeatedly said he’s perfectly happy serving under Gantz as prime minister. Will the “weak leftist” label apply again so easily to Netanyahu’s rival?