Analysis

Israeli Election: Netanyahu Hits the Panic Button

We’ve seen it all before in 2015. But will a last-minute 'The Arab voters are moving in droves' strategy be as effective for Netanyahu in 2019? ■ Meanwhile, Lapid fly to Paris for a photo-op

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a interview to CBS network at his office in Jerusalem.
חיים צח / לע"מ

With the final election polls released on Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entered the final stretch of the campaign with his well-rehearsed “Right-wing rule is in danger” routine.

He said it outside the prime minister’s residence, in an impromptu meeting with supporters, and echoed it a few hours later in an online video where he warned that Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Kahol Lavan are leading Likud by five seats and will sit in a governing coalition with Hadash’s Ayman Odeh.

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We’ve seen it all before. In 2015, Netanyahu’s last-minute “The Arab voters are moving in droves” strategy delivered victory. But will it be as effective in 2019?

This time around, Netanyahu’s coalition is potentially based on seven or eight smaller parties, all hovering around the electoral threshold. The last polls before Friday’s cutoff had Likud and Kahol Lavan in a dead heat and the right wing-religious coalition comfortably ahead of the center-left bloc with around 65 seats. Why is Netanyahu jeopardizing this at the last moment?

There a number of possible answers. Perhaps he doesn’t trust the polls or is in possession of what he believes to be more accurate and less favorable polling?

Is it because he wants to avoid the humiliation (for him) of winning but still not leading the largest party in the next Knesset? It is not just potential humiliation. Netanyahu is gripped by the paranoia that even if he wins in coalition terms, should Kahol Lavan end up with more seats President Reuven Rivlin will give Gantz the first crack at forming a government.

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Perhaps Netanyahu has polls showing Likud and its coalition in an even better situation than the media’s polls and he isn’t worried about losing partners. Instead, he’s trying to strengthen his hand in dealing with the other right-wing parties in future coalition negotiations. It is in those talks where he is expected to also seek assurances that they will help him remain in power — even if the attorney general decides to indict him after the looming hearings.

Whatever Netanyahu’s reasons, his "gevalt" campaign will set the tone for the last days of campaigning. It will certainly cause his allies to panic. Those who keep Shabbat will be especially infuriated that Netanyahu kicked it off on Friday afternoon, not giving them time to formulate a response until Saturday night.

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Meanwhile, Kahol Lavan’s campaign has been trying to create some momentum with Gantz and his running mates Yair Lapid (who took a few hours out of the campaign to fly to Paris for a rather pointless photo-op with President Emmanuel Macron), Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon rushing around the country, telling supporters that “victory is a meter away” — though that meter is looking like a pretty long one.

And Labor’s Avi Gabbay — who is convinced he would be leading with ease if only he were the opposition’s main candidate against Netanyahu  — is running his own gevalt campaign based on the prediction that Gantz is already planning to be a member of Netanyahu’s government.

With three days to go, we can expect much more of the toxicity, with a heavy dose of anonymous text messages and rumor-mongering to manipulate turnout on Tuesday. Hold on.