Israel’s 2019 election campaign began in the early hours of July 19, the moment the Knesset passed the nation-state law. The coalition’s lawmakers had no doubt about it, once they understood how suddenly determined Benjamin Netanyahu was to pass a law he had allowed to languish for the better part of a decade in committees. A date for elections next year has yet to be set, but Netanyahu’s electoral calculus is now clear.
The Knesset was about to end its summer session. Netanyahu reckoned this was his last chance to move any serious legislation, as by the time the Knesset members reconvene in the autumn they will already be gripped by an upcoming election, and the coalition will start to disintegrate. Why did the prime minister-whose party seems to be doing well in the polls- reach for the most divisive and controversial law he could find? The most simple explanation is that Netanyahu, an insatiable consumer of opinion polls, was worried by surveys indicating that 70 percent of Israelis (even higher than that on the right) were unhappy with the lack of response of his government to the barrage of flaming kites and balloons coming over from Gaza.
One of the contradictions in Netanyahu’s character is that while he is a pyromaniac on the domestic political front – when it comes to making military decisions, he is the most cautious leader in Israeli history. He understood very well there is little Israel can do right now about the airborne arson attacks from Gaza. In fact, he was fully aware that a long-term cease-fire agreement with Hamas is in the works. He supports such a deal but fears, with good reason, that among his hard-right base, such a deal will not be popular, as it will not include in its first stage a return to Israel of the two civilians being held captive in Gaza and the remains of two IDF soldiers killed in Gaza in 2014.
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To win an election, Netanyahu needs two things. First, to ensure that just enough voters are not tempted to vote for centrist parties, jeopardizing his right-wing-religious coalition’s majority, and secondly, that most of those voters who do vote for coalition parties, choose Likud. He is more worried about the second, and sees rival right-wingers - particularly Habayeit Hayeudi leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who can almost surely be relied upon to criticize a Gaza cease-fire deal - as his main threat. By personally endorsing and pushing through the nation-state law, Netanyahu planned to both show the right-wingers that only he could be relied upon to further a truly nationalist agenda and to convince the small, but crucial section of the electorate wavering between a right-wing or centrist vote, that the opposition which voted against the law are both unpatriotic and anti-Zionist.
But hasty legislation always leaves loose ends untied. His much eroded team, which nowadays contains very few experienced aides, failed to predict the anger of Israel’s “model minority,” the Druze Israeli community. Netanyahu’s first reaction was to try and buy them off, but Israeli-Druze are both savvy and politically-diverse, and most of the leadership were not buying Bibi’s carrots.
The way Netanyahu contrived on Thursday night to blow up the meeting with the local Druze leadership, claiming Brig. Gen. (res.) Amal Assad had called Israel an “apartheid state” on Facebook (he hadn’t, he had simply warned of it becoming one), proves Netanyahu is doubling down and is now resolved to using sticks against the Druze. The quote, coming from his inner-circle over the weekend that “once we’ve embarked on it, we cannot change even a word in the nation-state law and whoever doesn’t like it - there’s a large Druze community in Syria, and they’re invited to found the state of Druzistan there,” was proof enough.
Netanyahu had hoped to at least divide, if not buy off the Druze community, before Saturday night’s rally in Tel-Aviv against the nation-state law and in solidarity with the Druze.
While officially at least, the rally is not party-affiliated and is being organized by NGOs, Netanyahu’s proxies are right in saying that this is a political rally against the prime minister. Many of the leading opposition politicians will be there, and even though the main Jewish speakers are to be the ostensibly non-political former security chiefs – ex-IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and the former head of Mossad Tamir Pardo - the tone is clear.
The center-left is trying to challenge Netanyahu on the patriotism front. This isn’t a simple strategy, on the political or moral level. By focusing the rally on solidarity with the Druze, they are to some degree playing into Netanyahu’s hands, by ignoring the much larger Israeli-Arab community, the true targets of the nation-state law. But the Druze, who unlike the Arabs serve in the Israeli army, are much more popular among Israel’s Jewish mainstream.
Another ploy, this time by the Zionist Union party, to snatch back the patriotic mantle, was the announcement of its leaders Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni, that if they win the next elections, they will pass Israel’s Declaration of Independence (which contains some of the nationalist elements of the nation-state law along with a commitment to equality for all citizens) in to law, as the country’s constitution.
Tonight’s rally is essentially the end of the first act of the election campaign. This is how the showdown between Netanyahu and his center-left opponents will be framed: It will be a toxic confrontation about who are the Jewish patriots and who are the anti-Zionists on the Arabs’ side.
Essentially, it will be a re-run of the 2015 election, with one major difference.
In 2015, both sides used similar tactics. Netanyahu incited against Israel’s Arab minority, with Likud sending millions of anonymous text-messages with lies such as “Hamas called on Israeli-Arabs to go and vote” and “turnout is three times higher in the Arab community”. And then on election day, Netanyahu himself made his infamous “the Arab voters are heading in droves to the polling-stations” Facebook video.
The center-left also held a grand rally the weekend before the 2015 election, under the slogan “Israel Wants Change”. The former security chief who spoke at that rally was the late Head of Mossad Meir Dagan. Dying from liver failure, he told me on the eve of the rally “I have to keep my last shreds of strength to push him (Netanyahu) out”. It was the only political speech of his life, in which he warned, in tears, that “for the first time in my life I’m afraid of our leadership.” It didn’t help. Netanyahu’s anti-Arab campaign won him enough votes.
But there is one main difference now. In 2015, Netanyahu broadcast his toxic message only on the very last days of the campaign. Now, he has let it out of the bottle before he even knows how long the campaign will last. Will it have a lasting impression and can the center-left counter it?
Netanyahu’s main advantages are the center-left’s weakness – split between Zionist Union, led by the mistake-prone Gabbay, and the opportunistic Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which is widely expected to join Netanyahu’s coalition after election, should he win. But Netanyahu is also at a personal disadvantage: He’s running against time. He cannot predict whether the probable criminal indictments in at least part of the corruption investigations will come before election day and overshadow his campaign. Which is one of the reasons why he decided to go ahead with the nation-state law now, to try and make the campaign as much about his opponents' lack of patriotism, and less about his own personal corruption.
Will it work? The polling so far is inconclusive. One poll on the Walla website puts support of the nation-state law at 58 percent of the general public, which would mean it’s working so far for Netanyahu. But the same poll also put support for the Druze protest against the law at 58 percent, which indicates that at least some of the law’s supporters are less than certain. In an interesting analysis on the +972 website, political consultant Dahlia Scheindlin presented additional polling and results from focus groups, indicating that a large proportion of moderate right-wingers who support the nation-state law in principle, don’t think the law is actually necessary and view it as a “PR trick for Bibi”.
Tonight’s rally, and more important than that, how it is perceived in the media and by the wider public, could make or break Netanyahu’s opening move of the campaign. If the organizers, and the center-left parties, succeed in leveraging the support for the Druze community, in to articulating a powerful, patriotic message against the nation-state law, they will have gone some way to pushing back Netanyahu’s divisive narrative.