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Four Weeks From Israeli Election, Even Netanyahu’s Political Stunts Can’t Rouse Voters

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meeting Naama Issachar and her mother Yaffa in Moscow, January 30, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara meeting Naama Issachar and her mother Yaffa in Moscow, January 30, 2020.Credit: HANDOUT/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Israel’s unprecedented third election in the space of less than a year is also, without a doubt, its sleepiest ever.

With just four weeks to go, the campaign is barely registering with the public. Only a small number of billboards have been bought by the parties; candidates have yet to start touring the country; and, even online, the usual barrage of political videos has yet to start. The parties seem to have recognized that Israelis are sick of them and are happy to inflict only the bare minimum of propaganda toward the very end.

Meanwhile, the polls are registering tiny, inconsequential changes from the last election result in September. At this rate, if something doesn’t change by March 2, the deadlock will continue and we’ll have to start preparing for a fourth election ... and then a fifth.

The two men vying to form the next government, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz, both need just four or five more Knesset seats for either their parties or political blocs. If just 3 percent of the electorate would move their way, they can block their rival and unlock a path toward building that majority of 61 seats.

But with the electoral terrain refusing to shift, where are those votes going to come from?

Both leaders have a polling-based strategy. Netanyahu is convinced there is an unexploited mine of dormant Likudniks who didn’t vote in the last two elections, and all he needs to do is to somehow awaken them and drag them to the polling places. That is why he is trying to engineer as many grandiose spectacles as possible in the final few weeks of the campaign: the Trump peace plan; the annexation of settlements; bringing imprisoned Israeli backpacker Naama Issachar back from Moscow on his plane; a “third country” arrangement with Uganda to deport African asylum seekers from south Tel Aviv. The plan is to throw so much red meat at the base that even the laziest Likudnik will rise from his slumbers on Election Day.

Gantz has been told by his pollsters that the right wing’s more moderate flank is soft and disgruntled with Netanyahu. It is ripe for the plucking: If only these people can be convinced that Kahol Lavan is really a right-wing party in centrist clothing, they will be his. So he will continue to endorse Trump’s peace plan, saying only he can be entrusted to take advantage of the historic opportunity Israel has been granted and to implement it. And he will repeatedly remind voters that Netanyahu will soon be on trial in three separate corruption cases and therefore cannot be expected to function as prime minister – but not because there is anything wrong with Netanyahu’s policies.

Both strategies are based on slim premises, though. The turnout in 2019’s two elections, and that of 2015, all hovered around the 70 percent mark – relatively high for most democracies and, when adjusted for the number of Israelis living abroad, means that over 80 percent of Israelis here routinely vote. Even if Netanyahu is the first politician in history to find a way of motivating that small proportion of chronic nonvoters, there is absolutely no guarantee that they are disproportionately right-leaning.

A Kahol Lavan poster featuring leader Benny Gantz at a party conference in Tel Aviv, February 2, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

And while Gantz’s strategists are right in identifying a soft-right constituency that would be happy to see Netanyahu depart, they were also there in the previous two elections as well. Many of them have already migrated to Kahol Lavan or Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Most of those who still voted Likud or stayed home in 2019’s elections won’t be inclined to suddenly change their view of Gantz and see him as a right-winger just because of a few visits to East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. Gantz is a staid and stable figure, not the kind who can undergo a mercurial image transformation.

For now, though, these are the best strategies the two main parties have at their disposal, and they’re doing everything they can to follow them. They are fighting this election on the margins: Netanyahu on the banks of that amorphous stay-at-home reservoir; Gantz on the right-wing fringe of the “Anyone-but-Bibi” camp. Unless there’s a hidden trend the election polls have yet to detect, neither of them appear to be having much success.

So, could one of the smaller parties make any difference to the overall picture? At this point, it seems unlikely. For the two parties that enjoyed the biggest change in fortunes last year, just repeating their September performances will be an achievement.

In the space of five months, the predominantly Arab Joint List (which ran as two separate tickets last April) succeeded in boosting turnout in the Arab community by some 10 percentage points, reaching 59.2 percent. That’s high for their base, but still 10 percentage points below the general turnout figure.

The Joint List’s leaders are talking of increasing Arab turnout again in March – which would not only mean more seats for the Arab alliance, but also shrinking the right-wing/religious bloc by another seat or two. That could have broader implications, but changing entrenched voting patterns in the relatively apathetic Arab community will still be a tall order.

Yisrael Beiteinu saw its tally grow by 60 percent in September (from five to eight seats) as a result of Lieberman’s decision not to join Netanyahu in government and transforming his party into crusaders of secularism. Yet it will struggle to pull off the same trick again. Lieberman sat on the fence after the last election, not using his potential power to play kingmaker. Now he is claiming he can ensure that a “national liberal” government is finally formed after this election, but why would any new voters choose to believe him?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posing for a selfie at the Likud election campaign launch in Jerusalem, January 21, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The other four parties in the running for Knesset seats are focusing on their own core constituencies. (Although 30 parties registered for this election, only eight have a realistic chance of crossing the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent.) United Torah Judaism, Shas and Yamina all have their own religious communities that will come out and vote (although in Yamina’s case, some religious-Zionist voters may not be so pleased with the makeup of the slate and could look elsewhere), but won’t change the overall outcome.

In the case of the new Meretz-Labor-Gesher alliance, it will be interesting to see if any left-leaning voters who previously opted for Kahol Lavan return “home” now that Gantz is breaking rightward. If they do, it may prevent Kahol Lavan from retaining its largest-party status, but won’t change the balance between the two blocs.

It could all change, of course. Perhaps when the campaigning begins in earnest in the final two weeks, voters will wake up and change their minds. They may suddenly realize they’re tired of Netanyahu and go for Gantz. Or they could be reminded that Bibi is, after all, Israel’s one and only master statesman, no matter what awaits him in court.

For now, that seems unlikely. Unless something dramatic happens in the next four weeks, this is the election that will change nothing.

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