Analysis |

Israelis Think Netanyahu Has Already Won the Election – but a Few Thousand Votes Could Tip the Balance

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Netanyahu touring Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market ahead of the March 23 vote.
Netanyahu touring Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market ahead of the March 23 vote. Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Israel is being dragged into its fourth election in less than two years on Tuesday for one reason only – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plot to evade the fate awaiting him at the end of his corruption trial hasn’t succeeded yet. A criminal defendant for whom “corruption” is a middle name is abusing a country once considered an island of stability and an emblem of democracy, the result being that today it’s a sorry joke.

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Any normal political system would long since have spat out this life-threatening bone in its throat. Not ours, though.

Weak, submissive politicians from Likud and its satellite parties follow Netanyahu like zombies time after time, to another adventure and yet another and still another, at the expense of the state treasury and the country's economic future, and at the price of democracy’s destruction and a schism among the people. The nightmare we’re living in has become so deeply rooted that the possibility of a fifth election is listed as one reasonable scenario among other, less outrageous ones.

The opposition is equally weak and wretched. It loses even when it wins – just as Netanyahu wins even when he loses.

In early February, just before the deadline for finalizing party tickets, right-wing splinter groups had the sense to create a joint ticket called Religious Zionism. (Woe to this racist Zionism, woe to this hateful, exclusionary religion!) Thanks to the responsibility demonstrated by the leaders of its component parts and to Netanyahu’s energetic lobbying, it’s expected to pass the electoral threshold and may give Netanyahu the last of the 61 seats he needs to form a government.

This would create an extremist, nationalist, homophobic government that persecutes minorities and whose main purpose would be to destroy the legal system. The people have had their say, Netanyahu would declare. We promised, and we’re keeping our promise.

The center-left bloc saw what its rival was doing and did the exact opposite. Meretz, Kahol Lavan, Labor and Yaron Zelekha’s New Economic Party weren’t wise enough to merge, not even into two tickets.

Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz didn’t want to because he got burned last time. Now he may be annihilated. Labor Chairwoman Merav Michaeli, in a fit of hubris, said no to Meretz, Ofer Shelah and Ron Huldai, leaving her with a dull, mediocre ticket.

Labor Party Chairwoman Merav Michaeli (R) speaks to a prospective voter in a Tel Aviv market, this week.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz put his ego aside and tried to find a partner, but was thrown out of every door. As for Zelekha, he’s only just entered politics and is already swindling his voters. He promised to act responsibly and quit the race if his party was expected to fail to make it into the Knesset. Since then, he has only shed votes, but he recruited his monstrous ego to create an alternative reality for himself.

Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid acted responsibly and maturely, yet even he could and should have done more to prevent a possible disaster for his bloc. Nevertheless, in the home stretch, he acted with genuine altruism and virtually disappeared. He even stopped attacking Gantz. He’s willing to end up with only 16 or 17 Knesset seats, as long as all the smaller center-left parties make it in.

A delusion called Bennett

The prevailing feeling among the public is that Netanyahu has already gotten his 61 seats. In all the polls on Friday, he and his partners were at 60 – just one short.

But when the starting point is a tie between the blocs, a few thousand votes could tip the balance, so any outcome is possible. In April of 2019, a mere 1,400 votes resulted in Naftali Bennett’s party (then called Hayamin Hehadash) being left out of the Knesset, and therefore, Netanyahu wasn’t able to form a government.

While we’re talking about Bennett, there’s no doubt that the final chord in the campaign belongs to him – and what a grating chord it was. In an astounding move that looked like a sign of mental collapse, he rushed on Sunday to a pro-Netanyahu television station with no viewers and, in front of the cameras, signed a pledge not to let Lapid become prime minister, “even as part of a rotation [agreement]” (there was also another clause, relating to Netanyahu and United Arab List Chairman Mansour Abbas, but he should have realized that nobody would notice or remember that).

Effectively, the Yamina chairman signed a letter of surrender. A day and a half earlier, Netanyahu had pretended to be going to Bennett’s home in Ra’anana to get him to sign a similar pledge. “I’m not signing anything; I don’t work for Netanyahu,” Bennett said then.

So what happened to him Sunday night? His nerves betrayed him. Bennett has flip-flopped quite a bit during this campaign. He began by promising to serve in a government with any other Zionist party and didn’t even rule out the left-wing Meretz; later, he unequivocally ruled out Meretz. Initially, he didn’t rule out a rotation agreement with Lapid, which would have one serve as prime minister before handing over the reins to the other, as long as he went first; later, he retracted this position as well.

In small, unimpressive steps, he has been making his way into a sixth Netanyahu government, which he will reach shrunken and wounded. It’s just another day in Bibi’s business.

Naftali Bennett after voting in Ra’anana, today.Credit: Hadas Parush

A few days ago, Bennett termed Religious Zionism Chairman Bezalel Smotrich “Netanyahu’s whipping boy.” It’s the other way around, Bennett. Smotrich is the pampered darling. He didn’t sign any loyalty oath and plans to be the tail that wags the dog, with great talent. The beatings, humiliations and obsessive abuse have been reserved for one person only, from 2013 onward.

The person who pounced on this gift was of course Gideon Sa’ar of the New Hope party. On Friday, his party and Bennett’s were tied in the polls at nine or 10 seats. But it’s clear that neither will reach the finish line with that many. Both gentlemen once breathed the rarified air of 20 seats or more, then went into freefall.

On Saturday evening, Bennett broke towards Netanyahu. Sa’ar stuck to his position ruling out cooperation. If Netanyahu forms a government, Bennett will be in it. Sa’ar will sit in the opposition – and give them hell. He’ll even enjoy it. It’s totally clear that if Sa’ar hadn’t quit Likud, hadn’t formed his own party, and hadn’t shuffled the deck, the opera would have ended even before it began and the blonde lady at the Prime Minister’s Residence would have sung a song of joy.

Looking further left, the prevailing assumption is Kahol Lavan will make it into the Knesset, despite the many losses that it has sustained. It looks like Gantz and his colleagues have done something right. Gantz’s frequent clashes in the cabinet and his arguments with Netanyahu have kept him in the headlines and in the public consciousness. People believed in the well-financed campaign depicting a horror scene if Kahol Lavan were to be shut out of the next Knesset.

Meretz’s situation is not good. If it survives, it will be due to the crying and lamentation over its fate on the final day of the campaign. At one time, Meretz voters voted from the heart and from the gut, while those voting “strategically” would shift from the left to the center. Now Meretz is praying for the opposite scenario – for strategic voters to have mercy on the party and save it from extinction.

The bottom line is that the combination of the party leaders’ commitments and their vows not to serve in a government alongside prospective coalition partners is creating a situation that looks like a bizarre board game with rules that simply make it impossible to play. Nevertheless, everyone can reset their relations with the other parties and shift to a more constructive approach.

And that’s despite the tempers that have flared even between those who have mostly been courteous with one another (such as Sa’ar and Bennett). Yet with all this information, it’s reasonable to assume that once the polls close, we can expect to see one of the most complicated, bizarre and difficult rounds of coalition talks, both before and after the party leaders consult with the president. And it’s also possible that he, President Reuven Rivlin, could initiate the biggest drama of them all.

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