Twenty Days Until Israel Election III, the Campaign Is Comatose and Voters Apathetic

Netanyahu’s biggest trick ever is Trump’s “deal of the century,” but so far it has only discouraged his base and galvanized his Arab opposition

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A  ballot box.
Credit: Moti Milrod
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Theoretically, Israel’s March 2 election is no different from the previous two ballots held in September and April: dramatic, fateful and too close to call. In practice, however, the election campaign is comatose, voter fatigue is rampant and the overriding consensus of Israelis seems to be that enough is enough.

Most of the parties and politicians competing in the election seem no less lethargic than their constituents, with the glaring exception of turbo-charged Benjamin Netanyahu. The so-called “magician” of Israeli politics keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat at a frenetic pace, but increasingly, most of them are dead on arrival. The public and to a lesser extent the media couldn’t care less.

Netanyahu's 'annexation nation' is ready to strike again. Listen

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Netanyahu’s reputation as master wizard suffered a serious blow in any case when his biggest trick ever, Donald Trump’s “deal of the century,” more or less blew up in his face. The prime minister could have rested on his laurels but, in an effort to generate excitement and provide his right wing with a particularly potent fix, he got ahead of himself: He promised instant gratification via swift annexation. Much of the Israeli public rejoiced, Jewish settlers and the ultra-right broke out in song and dance, but the ruckus was so loud, it set off alarm bells at the White House, which promptly shut down the party.

Leave it to PR genius Netanyahu to make even Donald Trump seem restrained and moderate by comparison. Leave it to history’s sense of irony that by pulling the rug out from under Netanyahu’s feet, Trump enraged the Likud leader’s political camp and, in the final analysis, may have cost him the election.

But the main reason for the Phony Election War of 2020 can be summed up in the phrase “been there, done that.” Despite Netanyahu’s supposedly game-changing indictments, President Trump’s here-yesterday-gone-today peace proposals and the prime minister’s bottomless bag of surprises, the polls and the public indicate, as the Book of Ecclesiastes noted: “That which has been is what will be; That which is done is what will be done; And there is nothing new under the sun.”

Despite minute diversions here and there, all of the polls predict that the most likely outcome of the March 2 ballot will be the same political stalemate that has already precipitated three elections within a year. There is a wall-to-wall consensus among politicians that Israel can’t and won’t continue in its current state of limbo and that a new government will be formed by hook or by crook, but as Israelis well remember, they said the same thing last time too.

What the pollsters can’t decipher is whether their respondents are voicing their true voting intentions or are simply regurgitating their votes from the previous elections without devoting too much thought to their answer. It is also unclear which side is served best by public apathy, though Netanyahu’s ceaseless efforts to wake up his electorate seem to indicate fear that his rivals have the most to benefit.

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meet with President Reuven Rivlin following the September 2019 election. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

Israeli Arabs

In fact, the only sector that is an exception to the overall sluggishness is the one that troubles Netanyahu the most: Israeli Arabs. Their participation in the September election was already 10 percent higher than in the April ballot, jumping from 49 to 59 percent. Most experts agree that the upcoming March ballot could see a similar rise in Arab participation rates, a development that could not only defeat Netanyahu’s wish to achieve a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, but could hand it on a silver platter to his main rival, Benny Gantz.

The dramatic uptick in participation between April and September was propelled by the re-merger of the Arab parties under the umbrella of the Joint List, as well as by anger at Netanyahu’s persistent demonization of Arab politicians, which continues unabated. If there is a similar surge in the ballot slated to be held in 20 days, its main catalyzer will be the same “deal of the century” that has marred Netanyahu’s relations with his right wing.

Trump’s plan, widely portrayed as a dream come true for Israel and as a nightmare come alive for Palestinians, was bound to incense Arab voters in any case. One sub-clause in Trump’s deal, however, has scared them to death, snapping hitherto indifferent voters out of their apathy.

The suggestion that most or all of the 300,000 Arabs residing in the so-called “Triangle” near the defunct Green Line might be stripped of their Israeli citizenship and transferred, along with their land, to the so-called Palestinian state envisaged in Trump’s blueprint has enraged Israeli Arabs, focusing their attention to an unusual degree on the upcoming ballot.

Even though the plan stipulates that the move would depend on mutual agreement – rendering it moot in practice – the very fact that it featured in Trump’s plan was seen by most Arabs as crossing a red line and, given that the originator of the scheme was Netanyahu himself, as a declaration of his future intent.

If Israeli Arabs perceive the upcoming election as a fight for their dignity and their lives, their voter participation could increase to levels unseen for over 20 years: In the 1999 elections, which still included the direct election of the prime minister, 78.7 percent of Israeli Arabs came out to vote, contributing handsomely to the decisive 12 percent margin by which Ehud Barak trounced Netanyahu after Netanyahu’s first term in office. If voter participation even comes close to the 1999 figures, Arab voter participation could surpass the Jewish rate, which went down to 72 percent in September, for the first time in history.

Everything else being equal, the representation of the Joint List in the Knesset could jump from its current 13 seats to 16 or beyond, pushing the overall anti-Netanyahu camp past the 60-seat threshold and, on the face of it, ensuring his defeat. The problem is that the enthusiastic reception accorded Trump’s plan by Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party – including their feeble dissociation from the “transfer clause” – has incensed Israeli Arabs and brought the fledgling collaboration between the Joint List and Kahol Lavan to a screeching halt.

Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu deliver joint remarks on a Middle East peace plan proposal at White House in Washington, January 28, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

‘A pox on both your houses’

If the Joint List decides to go the way of Romeo’s friend Mercutio by declaring “a pox on both your houses” and refusing to line up behind Gantz’s candidacy for prime minister, we could be back to square one, with fate smiling again on Netanyahu. Assuming Jewish voting preferences don’t change and with Joint List theoretically out of consideration, Netanyahu will command the same 55-53 majority that his right-wing bloc holds over Kahol Lavan, Labor, Meretz and the elusive Avigdor Lieberman today. Unless the High Court of Justice or President Reuven Rivlin decide that Netanyahu’s indictment precludes him from serving as prime minister, it is he who will once again get first crack at forming a new government.

Which is why, notwithstanding the potential impact of high voter turnout among Israeli Arabs, the battle could be decided by no more than two to three Knesset seats generated by Israeli Jews. If only three Knesset seats move from right to left, and the Joint List abstains, Gantz will be able to quickly set up a government with Lieberman in tow, remove Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Office and then invite Likud or any of its satellites to join his cabinet, which they ultimately will.

Of course, one cannot completely rule out the remote possibility that the Joint List will actually oppose Gantz’s proposed coalition, thus ensuring its defeat and assuring the prolongation of the political stalemate and consequent government paralysis. Whatever grievances Israeli Jews might hold against their Arab compatriots, they will never forget or forgive them and their Joint List if they end up paving the way for yet another excruciatingly tedious election campaign which, at this rate, will soon threaten Israel’s body politic with death by boredom.