Election Countdown

Netanyahu Goes to DEFCON 1, Guns Blazing, in Last-ditch Effort to Sway Voters

The prime minister declares 'emergency' because of lower turnout by Likud voters but no one knows if his panic is real or feigned

Benjamin Netanyahu is now in full combat mode.
Ofer Vaknin

Benjamin Netanyahu is now in full combat mode, guns blazing and full speed ahead. He is throwing everything but the kitchen sink into his election campaign. Less than 48 hours before polls open, the prime minister’s image and words have vanquished the airwaves. His ubiquitous presence has turned the election campaign into "All Netanyahu, All the Time."

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 40Haaretz

In the past 24 hours alone, Netanyahu has arranged for U.S. President Donald Trump to float the idea of a mutual defense treaty between Israel and the U.S., which no one but Netanyahu thinks is a good idea – though the premier might discreetly share that view. Netanyahu asserted, with no confirmation from Washington, that Trump’s “ultimate peace plan” will be unveiled within “days” after the election. And he claimed, in a bizarre choice of words, that only he can “stop” Trump from making the wrong moves on Iran.

Netanyahu continued to trumpet his plan to annex the Jordan Valley and compelled the attorney general to legalize a new settlement there. And he is escalating his assault on the credibility of the Israeli election, jumping up and down about voter fraud, rallying his troops to meet the menace and possibly laying the ground for rejecting the election results should he lose.

>> Read more: The only real question still looming over Israel's repeat election | Analysis ■ Israeli TV just let Netanyahu manipulate it in aggressive campaign move | Analysis

Netanyahu’s rivals watched helplessly on Saturday night as the prime minister exploited his august position and his undeniable knack for making news and sparking controversy to occupy most of Israeli television’s prime time and main headlines, across virtually all TV, radio and print news outlets, big and small. Most of his numerous interviews were tense and testy, with Netanyahu railing against the “hostile media,” the same media he has steadfastly boycotted but which nonetheless bent over backwards to give him all the airtime he needs.  

A Likud campaign poster in Jerusalem, September 14, 2019.
Emil Salman

And while his interviewers were mostly tough as nails and although critics panned the prime minister’s performance as borderline hysterical, Netanyahu’s mission was accomplished:  He fired up his legions, manipulated their fears, played on their grudges, toyed with their resentments and bolstered their sense of victimhood. He has completely overshadowed his rivals, whose only recourse was to cry foul from the bleachers.

In the process, Netanyahu has successfully relegated what was supposed to be the central issue of this election – his alleged corruption and prospects of indictment – to the sidelines. He has deftly shifted the focus of the campaign to his fortes in national security and foreign affairs. Come what may, he has proven once again that he is the undisputed heavyweight champion of Israeli election campaigns, making his rivals look like clueless amateurs in comparison.

On Sunday night, Netanyahu unleashed his ultimate weapons: Panic and pandemonium. Citing a “secret” Likud report that supposedly predicts a Likud loss because of low voter participation by its supporters, Netanyahu cancelled a campaign rally and convened an “emergency” meeting.

In the 48 hours left before the polls close, Netanyahu will raise the Likud alarm level to DEFCON1. He will sound the sirens, man the battle stations and take to the air to warn right-wingers that leftist barbarians are at the gate. If you don’t go and vote, he’ll warn, Israel will fall into the hands of an Arab-loving leftist cabal that will outlaw religion, discriminate against non-Ashkenazis and give away the store, more or less.  

The conventional wisdom holds that Netanyahu’s hysteria is feigned, as it was in previous election campaigns. It is one of his staple ploys, known in Israel as a “gevalt” campaign. Netanyahu, who is both consummate warrior and perennial worrier, reads the same polls as everyone else, and they are moving in his direction. He just doesn’t want to leave anything to chance.

Benny Gantz, seen on a campaign poster in Jerusalem, September 14, 2019.
Emil Salman

An alternative view holds that Netanyahu’s usually feigned panic is genuine this time around. According to some of the pollsters, Netanyahu has sound reasons to fear that too many of his supporters will stay home on Tuesday and to suspect a last-minute surge of voter participation on his opponents' side.

If that is the case, Netanyahu could very well fall short of his coveted 61-seat majority and possibly fail to get first crack at forming a new government. Signaling the end of Netanyahu’s famous infallibility, his failure could spark an uprising by his long-suppressed and silenced colleagues in Likud, who would plot to depose and replace him with a leader who could form a so-called “national unity government” with Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan.

Netanyahu knows that given half a chance and the most flimsy of pretexts, his nemesis President Reuven Rivlin will appoint Gantz first, hoping that this will indeed spur a Likud putsch. In order to thwart Rivlin’s designs, Netanyahu is waging a two-front war: Striving for a 61-seat right-wing majority while concurrently making sure that Likud secures more Knesset seats than Kahol Lavan.

The problem is that there could very well be an internal contradiction between Netanyahu’s dual goals. Despite most polls indicating that the right-wing racist Otzma Yehudit party is poised to pass the 3.25 percent threshold, Netanyahu is calling on its supporters to switch their allegiance to Likud so their votes won’t be wasted. By doing so, Netanyahu might find himself hoisted on his own petard: He could very well be siphoning off the very votes that would make or break Otzma Yehudit and thus deny himself victory.

Netanyahu is also trying to drain votes away from Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina party, a strategy that is both political and intensely personal at the same time. Shaked, along with everyone else, knows full well that Netanyahu’s tactical considerations are fueled by Sara Netanyahu’s long-held antipathy toward her. Feeling the heat and seeing Yamina drop steadily in the polls, Shaked broke her long-held silence on Sunday and accused the prime minister and his party of harboring an “irrational hostility” toward her very existence. She didn’t mention the prime minister’s spouse by name, but everyone knew whom she was referring to.

Members of Otzma Yehudit hold a press conference, August 28, 2019.
Emil Salman

Some of Netanyahu’s supporters also fear that he may be overdoing it. His all-out assault on the hearts and minds of his voters, they claim, his seemingly endless barrage of populist policy changes, wild accusations and unfounded insinuations, are making a bad situation worse. After all, most Likud voters who plan to stay home are doing so because they are disillusioned with Netanyahu’s conduct in office. His divisive no-holds barred, anything-goes campaign accentuates the very traits that wavering Likudniks don’t like in the first place.

All of which means that two days before election, to cite Donald Rumsfeld, the “known knowns” are that Netanyahu is in a close race that could be decided by a handful of votes, that he is a grandmaster of political machinations and that he traditionally outperforms public opinion polls.

The “known knowns” also cast the fates of Otzma Yehudit on the right and Labor on the left as critical elements that will determine if Netanyahu triumphs, and by how much. Both parties are hovering perilously close to the threshold. If Otzma Yehudit falls short, Netanyahu can probably kiss his dreams goodbye. If Labor is wiped out, he could wind up with an unassailable majority that exceeds his wildest fantasies.

The “known unknown” is the one that all the parties are focused on: Voter participation. If the percentage of Arab voters remains at around 50 percent, as it was in the last election, Netanyahu’s path to victory will be easier; if it goes up to 65 percent, as it was in the 2015 election, his prospects of winning decline dramatically; and if it reaches 70-75 percent, possibly as a reaction to Netanyahu’s efforts to demonize them, Israeli Arabs could hand Gantz the prime ministership on a silver platter. The same is true of the voter participation rate among disillusioned Likudniks on the one hand, and detached lefties on the other.

Finally, there is the great “unknown unknown”, which, by its very nature, cannot be foretold. Israeli history is replete with Election Day shockers that no poll ever predicted; subterranean movements of voters’ preferences that failed to register on any of the established radars. Even if all the other elements that make for electoral victory or defeat perform more or less as expected, there is always a chance of a big bang that will confound all the learned predictions.

The chances of such a meteor dropping out of the sky to wreak havoc on the electoral landscape should suffice to boost tensions and apprehensions in advance of the 10 P.M. publication of exit polls. A note of caution is nonetheless appropriate. Based on the experience of the previous four election campaigns, when the dust settles and all is said and done, Netanyahu will ultimately alight a Likud podium to celebrate his greatest victory ever.

A watershed election for Netanyahu – and for Israeli democracy