High Noon on Israel’s Election Day: The Settler Versus the Posh Kid Netanyahu

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Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman and Likud leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman and Likud leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun, Nir Elias, Amir Cohen/File Photo

UPDATE: Israel election results: Netanyahu two seats away from majority with 90 percent of votes counted

Israelis were voting Monday because of one man: Avigdor Lieberman. It was the Yisrael Beiteinu leader who denied Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the Knesset seats he needed for a majority last April. Lieberman who could have made Benny Gantz prime minister in September, but vetoed a minority government with the outside support of Arab lawmakers from the Joint List.

Now, Lieberman is promising that Israelis won’t have to go through a fourth election in less than 18 months. But even in the small West Bank settlement he calls home, his neighbors don’t believe him.

An hour after the polling stations opened Monday morning, a small group of settlers were huddled at the bus stop on their way to Jerusalem. None of them identified as Yisrael Beiteinu supporters.

“We didn’t vote for him because we know him,” says Daniel, a librarian. “Back in 2003 he got 40 percent of the vote here [heading the National Union]. In September, he only got 9 percent” (Yisrael Beiteinu actually did slightly better, winning 10.4 percent of the vote). Daniel and his wife Olga, a seamstress, both voted Likud, which won 27.3 percent of the vote here in September – only slightly more than Likud’s vote across Israel.

Nokdim, a mixed religious-secular settlement, is a bastion of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, which came first here in September with 45.4 percent of the vote. The racist Otzma Yehudit party also did well with 8.4 percent, just two percentage points fewer than the famous local resident.

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman with his wife voting in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, March 2, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

Daniel says he has voted for Otzma and other far-right parties in the past, despite having been a Likud member for 27 years. Netanyahu used to be too moderate for him. This time around, though, he voted for him with full confidence.

After Lieberman bolted the coalition government, Netanyahu accused him of “joining the left.” Lieberman’s standard response has been: “The man from Caesarea is calling the man from Nokdim a leftist” – as if living on an austere settlement prevented Lieberman from enriching himself in his brief breaks from politics and becoming a millionaire, just like Netanyahu.

The truth is that we don’t really know anything about Lieberman’s real intentions. Does he genuinely believe he can attain a more powerful position in a Gantz government than the offers he received from Netanyahu, which he claims included part of the term as prime minister?

Perhaps Lieberman is no longer that interested in power: After all, he’s already held most of the senior cabinet positions and all he cares about is taking down Netanyahu, who never lived up to his expectations or gave him the kind of power he craved in the various posts he held under him over three decades.

He emerged from his home while the polling station in Nokdim’s local library was still relatively deserted, aside from a small knot of supporters and the bodyguards the state still provides for the former defense minister. Emerging from the polling station, he made a short statement about the need for Israel not to be a “halakhic state” (following Jewish religious law), but it sounded like last year’s message.

Lieberman may have cited the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties as his casus belli to split with Netanyahu after last April’s election. But this campaign has barely featured any issues of religion and state, and the votes his party gained last September are slowly seeping away to Likud and Kahol Lavan – with Netanyahu remaining in power or being sent packing seen as the only thing that matters.

In the last campaign, Likud invested heavily in its high-profile campaign, plastering the country with massive posters of Netanyahu the statesman standing side by side with U.S. President Donald Trump. This time around, there are not nearly as many posters: On the hour-long drive from Nokdim to Rosh Ha’ayin in central Israel, I counted only three or four large Likud posters and perhaps a dozen smaller ones. Trump has disappeared and the Netanyahu image is different – less masterful or domineering, more avuncular uncle.

This is one of the last remnants of the early stage of the Likud campaign, when advisers hired from the Trump 2016 campaign were in charge and counseled Netanyahu to run a “positive” campaign, presenting him as the benevolent father of the nation. But the advisers (Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie) were sent packing after just a few weeks, leaving only the Netanyahu picture as their legacy. Likud quickly pivoted to a smear campaign against Gantz and the predominantly Arab Joint List.

But it hasn’t been all bitterness and dark. Likud’s strategy has been more nuanced this time around, albeit not subtle. The party has invested much more in its digital organization and online skulduggery for this campaign, which can be seen in its more limited public presence. In previous campaigns, Likud stars other than Netanyahu were given supporting roles. This time, their only job is to act as cheerleaders at Netanyahu speeches.

Take Miri Regev. The culture minister received a battle bus to tour the country for the last election. This time, she has had to suffice with more meager tools: As she arrived to vote near her home in Rosh Ha’ayin on Monday morning, all she had by way of support was a small Likud van, a group of friends with a boom box, and a truck festooned with homemade banners featuring Netanyahu against a backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. Regev’s reduced entourage was an interesting contrast to that of her neighbor, Kahol Lavan leader Gantz.

The two politicians live in the same upscale housing project, which was originally marketed to senior Israel Defense Forces officers – most of whom are now on their second careers. Gantz voted an hour before Regev, and it was interesting to see how his personal team, now on their third campaign, have upped their game.

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz and his wife Revital voting in Rosh Ha'ayin, March 2, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner,AP

In the 2019 elections, they barely managed to muster a dozen supporters, armed with a few flags, to accompany their wannabe prime minister on Election Day. This time, a crowd of about 100 was there, equipped with banners and T-shirts alongside a beefed-up security team, all providing a convincing leader-in-waiting backdrop for the attendant cameras.

The only people who didn’t look exuberant were Benny and Revital Gantz, who looked exactly like a couple who had spent the night reading lurid online reports of the husband’s alleged infidelities. The Gantzes have spent the last year in the eye of a shit-storm of innuendo from Likud outriders – including the prime minister’s eldest son, Yair Netanyahu – and it didn’t take an expert in body language to gauge the toll this has taken on them.

Whatever Monday’s result, Benny Gantz looks like someone who can’t bear the thought of having to go through this one more time in a fourth election.

Even his hometown is split down the middle: Rosh Ha’ayin voted in Likud’s favor (35 percent to 34 percent) last April; in September, Kahol Lavan won by a sliver with 34.7 percent to Likud’s 34.5 percent.

Voters of both main parties mingled easily in the nearby mall. Moshe Goldberg, a computer programmer, said he voted Kahol Lavan “because I educate my children to be truthful, and I can’t vote for a leader indicted on three corruption charges – though I’ve voted for Likud in the past.” He added, however, that “if with all Netanyahu’s indictments half the population is still voting for him, I don’t think we can put him on trial and send him to prison. You can’t do that to half the people.”

Teacher Ruth Twito said she had voted for Likud, “like every time. I’ve shut myself off from the media in the last five months, since September. I don’t know what they’re saying about Bibi. My mentor is a left-winger, and I do everything she tells me on condition that she doesn’t talk politics.” At the till in one of the coffee shops, employees had placed two tip jars: one for Bibi, the other for Gantz. By midmorning, they had accumulated an almost identical number of coins.

On Election Morning, it almost looked as if the Gantzes had changed places with the previously embattled Netanyahus, who arrived at their polling station looking incredibly radiant and refreshed. In each of the last three elections, the prime minister broadcast calculated panic in the last days of the campaign. This time, though, he has changed strategies and the message now is one of optimism and “just one more seat and we’ll win.”

AFTER YOU: Sara and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voting in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, March 2, 2020. Credit: Atef Safadi,AP

Despite Lieberman’s label of “the man from Caesarea” – after the Netanyahus’ weekend retreat in the millionaires’ coastal enclave – their address for voting purposes is in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood. The family’s ground floor apartment has remained locked and empty since Netanyahu returned to office in 2019, the metal shutters rusting away. Will they be returning soon?

Netanyahu’s tragedy is that he is the man from Rehavia, which rejected him. He grew up in this upper middle class neighborhood, which remains one of Jerusalem’s most secular areas. He still owns his parents’ house nearby (in a murky partnership with American billionaire Spencer Partridge), but he has never won over this part of the Jerusalem intelligentsia.

Jerusalem has changed over the decades, becoming much more religious and right wing, but voting patterns haven’t changed that much in Rehavia. Last September, Likud received only 13 percent of the vote in one of the neighborhood’s polling stations, coming a distant third behind Kahol Lavan and Meretz. Indeed, at noon, it’s impossible to find a Likud voter in one of Rehavia’s cafés or restaurants.

The man from Nokdim may topple the man from Rehavia and help the man from Rosh Ha’ayin become Israel’s new prime minister. But only Gantz can claim to really belong to his hometown and represent “middle Israel.”

The immigrant distrusted by his neighbors and the right-wing kid in a liberal neighborhood never truly belonged. Perhaps that’s why Lieberman and Netanyahu are so competitive and resentful of each other.

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