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Netanyahu Closes in on Election Victory, Courtesy of Putin’s Decisive 'October Surprise'

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, April 4, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, April 4, 2019.Credit: AFP

1. With five days to go before Israelis head to the polls, Benjamin Netanyahu appears assured for victory. Netanyahu’s Likud may be stable in the polls, but his right-wing allies are gaining ground while its main rival, Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, is slowly weakening. The recent Haaretz poll, which gives the right-wing bloc a commanding 67-53 majority, indicates that, barring last minute dramas, the force and the momentum are with Netanyahu and his triumph seems assured.

2. Unsurprisingly, the right wing is refraining from voicing its customary tirades against the polls, for the simple reason that they are tilting in its favor for a change. Gone are the claims of bias, partiality and imprecise sampling, which have preceded previous elections, in Israel as in the United States. For some reason – which may, in fact, be grounded in reality – the common perception is that if the polls indicate a victory for the left, they will be confounded on Election Day but if they point the other way, they are bound to be precise and accurate.

The upshot is that while the right is undeterred by negative polls it doesn’t believe in anyway, the left, which generally ascribes more credibility to scientific surveys, is showing signs of early onset despair and depression. If this defeatist mood continues until next Tuesday, some might decide to stay home, granting Netanyahu an even bigger win than currently expected. Which will no doubt spark renewed protests on the right against the polls’ leftist tilt.

>> Read more: Netanyahu deserves to win. And we Israelis deserve him ■ Why this is the most difficult election to predict since Netanyahu's first victory

3. If Netanyahu indeed wins, he will be indebted to Vladimir Putin no less, and perhaps even more than to Donald Trump. Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last month, in which Trump bequeathed him with a presidential deed to the Golan Heights, was supposed to be the clincher that would swing the electorate Netanyahu’s way; It was marred, however, by a solitary Hamas missile that hit a home in central Israel, sparking a week-long security crisis that effectively erased Trump’s gesture from the public’s mind.

Putin’s sense of timing, on the other hand, was nothing less than perfect. A week before Israelis head to the polls, he supplied Netanyahu with an “October Surprise” – which should rightly be dubbed April awe, perhaps – that may eventually be seen as the coup de grace that killed off the center-left’s hopes for victory. The surprising return of the remains of Zechariah Baumel, killed 37 years ago in the first Lebanon War, with the crucial assistance of Russian troops stationed in Syria, not only hit one of the Israeli public’s most sensitive nerves, it dominated most news coverage and undermined the efforts of Netanyahu’s rivals to resurface the submarine scandal, which has been dogging the prime minister.

Netanyahu milked the return of Baumel’s body for all it was worth, including a personal jaunt to Moscow to receive Baumel’s recovered personal belongings, thank Putin personally for his “high moral values” and jet back from there to Baumel’s full military funeral on Thursday night. Netanyahu insisted that the timing of the return had nothing to do with the elections but even his supporters would agree that if you buy that, we have a nice bridge in Brooklyn to show you.

4. History, with its exquisite sense of irony, will note that the gesture by Putin, who leads a country that historically and, at least partially today in Syria, has been at odds with Israel, proved far more precious than the generous gift bestowed by Trump, the friendliest leader ever of Israel’s greatest ally. It will also record, with a smirk, that while Putin had to deploy clandestine armies of hackers and election saboteurs in order to help Trump in 2016, he lent a hand to Netanyahu out in the open, for all the world to see. And that no one in Israel dared to even mention the possibility that Putin’s intervention should be investigated.

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