Let us stipulate from the outset that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to win Tuesday’s election. This is conventional wisdom and the safest bet. It is based on extensive experience: If the race is close in the polls, you can usually wager your house that Netanyahu will emerge victorious.
This is doubly true for the September 17 ballot, because the almighty “trend” is going Netanyahu’s way. He is inching ever closer to his coveted 61 member majority in the Knesset, one that would grant him immunity from prosecution in exchange for harsh right-wing policies that are likely to inflame the territories, alienate Israel’s Arab majority, undermine Israeli democracy and widen the gap, perhaps irreversibly, between Israel and liberals, in general, and between Israel and American Jews, in particular.
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The fate of two parties will determine whether Netanyahu will reach his target of 61 and possibly exceed it dramatically. The first is Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist right wing party, which was hitherto given only a slim chance of passing the 3.25 percent threshold. But the party has been bolstered by Netanyahu’s legitimization in advance of the previous April 9 election and by basking in the spotlight directed at it by both Netanyahu’s Likud and Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina, which tried to persuade prospective Otzma supporters that they’d be wasting their votes. The tactic has obviously backfired.
In addition to its own hard nucleus of die-hard Kahanists, in recent weeks Otzma has picked up additional support from disappointed fans of Moshe Feiglin, the libertarian radical right-winger who left the race after signing a deal with Netanyahu; from disappointed admirers of Netanyahu himself, who were taken aback by the video of Netanyahu being rushed off the stage in the face of a Gaza rocket attack this week and came to the conclusion that their “weak” prime minister needs to be bolstered from the far right; and by Shas supporters who share the party’s odious right wing views but were hitherto fearful that it would fail to pass the threshold.
If Otzma does indeed pass the threshold and gain four seats in the upcoming 22nd Knesset, Netanyahu could come close to his 61-seat majority and possibly even surpass it. His win, however, could turn into a landslide if it is Labor, the second of the two pivotal parties, that fails to pass the threshold. The party has been hovering precipitously close to the 3.25 percent barrier and there is increasing concern that if center-left participation rates are significantly lower than in traditionally right-wing enclaves, Labor will falter and fall.
In such a scenario, Netanyahu will easily pick up his “Get out of jail free” card. He will also garner an unprecedented mandate, magnified by his ability to overcome his numerous handicaps, allowing him to act on his myriad grievances against the so-called “elites” and to have his way with Israeli democracy, media and the rule of law.
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Four days before Israelis head to the polls, voter participation is the name of the game, the unknown factor that could make a Netanyahu victory a virtual slam-dunk – or confound conventional wisdom and common expectations in both political camps. In the waning days of the campaign, the parties’ main focus is thus on getting out the vote.
Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc has a built-in advantage. In two of its most dependable electorates – ultra-Orthodox and settlement-supporting religious nationalists – voter participation traditionally reaches close to 90 percent. Given that both communities have been led to believe that losing the election would lead to disaster – the ultra-Orthodox are spooked by their newly militant adversary Avigdor Lieberman and the settlers by the prospect of a “leftist” government that would sell them out to the Palestinians – they are widely expected to rush to the polls in droves.
The sense of existential threat should be even more acute for Israel’s Arab minority, which has served as cannon fodder for the right-wing’s arguably racist campaign against the dangers of a “leftist” government supported by perfidious Arabs. Contrary to religious Jews, however, the response of many Israeli Arabs isn’t to make their mark by voting but to boycott the election altogether. In the April 9 ballot the Arab participation dipped below 50 percent and it’s anyone’s guess whether the number will remain about the same or even go down on Tuesday, lifting Netanyahu’s chances of victory, or whether the Arabs will surprise everyone with a last minute surge that could bolster the prospects of his opponents.
But the most critical question is the participation rate of everyone else, i.e. secular and traditional Israeli Jews. The common assumption, possibly based on preconceived notions, is that younger liberal secular Jews, especially millenials, who mainly reside in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, will vote in far lower numbers. Hardly a day goes without a primetime interview with a latte-sipping, quinoa-consuming Tel Aviv beachgoer who says all politicians are the same and voting isn’t worth the effort.
The only caveat to the assumption that center-left voters are more likely to stay home is the fact that it is widely shared. This has led parties from Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan and leftwards to gear their final campaign messages to drumming up voter participation. It has also sparked a spontaneous grassroots campaign on social media by leftist voters beseeching their reluctant friends and relatives to come out and vote nonetheless, lest they be branded turncoats and traitors.
Pollsters and analysts concede, however, that they are having a hard time deciphering the voting intentions not only of left-leaning millenials but of non-Orthodox Israelis in general, including the masses of so-called “traditional voters,” mainly but far from exclusively of North African voters, who are the mainframe of Likud support. There are numerous indications that this bloc is suffering from voter fatigue, general disillusionment with politics and a growing fear of the power that would be wielded by the coercive Orthodox in any narrow-right coalition headed by Netanyahu.
This is what is keeping the prime minister up at night: That despite pulling out all the stops and trying to inflame his “base” with blatantly racist campaign messages, too many traditional Likud voters, in cities such as Bat Yam and Be'er Sheva, simply won’t be bothered. They’ll take to the parks to mark the Election Day vacation, feast on the offerings of the Israeli barbecue dubbed “mangal” and then go home to sleep it off rather than head for the polls. Worse, they’ll vote for his nemesis, Avigdor Lieberman.
Netanyahu is widely expected to deploy one of his staple inflammatory provocations on Election Day, a la his 2015 “Arabs flocking to the polls,” in order to snap his voters out of their lethargy and corral to the voting booths. There is already widespread apprehension that these elections could be marred by gangs of roaming right-wing ruffians who will spark mayhem in the polling places, especially in the Arab sector, in order to alarm Likud voters that Netanyahu’s warning against the Arabs and left “stealing the election” is coming true.
All of which means that it ain’t over till its over. Netanyahu may seem like he’s heading for certain victory but a potentially catastrophic defeat is hardly out of the question either.
Thus, the election will apparently be decided by those who feel a greater danger to their continued happiness and wellbeing. Objectively speaking, it is the left that faces the greater risk. Ironically, though, it is the right that feels more victimized. Which means that come what may, when election results start coming on Tuesday night, everyone will be biting their nails, and Netanyahu, whose very freedom depends on the election results, most of all.