Final Countdown 2019

With Gaza Calmer, Netanyahu’s Trumpian Tactics Draw Fire

Nine days to go: Election campaign reignites, undecided voters are wooed and predictions of Netanyahu’s supposedly assured victory are challenged, albeit silently

A woman walks by an election campaign billboard showing Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud party leader, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, March 28, 2019.
Oded Balilty,AP

1. After a week-long hiatus imposed by the flare-up in Gaza and ended by a still fragile cease-fire with Hamas, the election campaign resumed on Sunday - or, as the mavens maintain, it finally started in earnest. The closing days of political campaigns, when most undecided voters make up their minds, are always critical, of course, but are usually the culmination of a continuous process. The Gaza recess broke the continuity of the 2019 election campaign, creating a vacuum that the politicians are now rushing to fill.

The opening skirmish of the frenzied battle to reset the all-important agenda was decided, ironically, by the campaign itself. The return of public and media attention from the war that never was in Gaza to the far fiercer slugfest between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz included a delayed outburst of widespread protest against the escalating use of personal defamation, fake news and dirty tricks. And while Netanyahu’s fans maintained that both sides are to blame, most of the criticism was directed at the Likud’s attempt to eliminate his rival Gantz through what can only be described as targeted character assassination.

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Within a few short weeks, the former army chief of staff who was appointed by Netanyahu, served under him for four years and was frequently lauded by him as an exemplary officer, was metamorphosed by the Likud’s spin machine into a failing military commander directly responsible for Israeli soldiers killed in battle and from there, in a moral free-fall, to a deranged and degenerate kook, crook and philanderer to boot, who is also a prime candidate for Iranian extortion.

In the drive to delegitimize Netanyahu’s only real rival for the throne, his campaign staff has resorted to doctored recordings, deliberate distortions, sinister insinuations and outrageous lies on a level unheard of in past elections. There are growing suspicions that Netanyahu might also be converting top state secrets to damaging press leaks aimed at besmirching Gantz, as in the Iranian phone-hacking affair, and to protect himself, as in the so-called submarine-for-bribes scandal.

We may have seen it all before, but never in such intensity, ferocity or bad intent.

2. The sudden surge of genuine anger at Netanyahu’s sordid tactics is unlikely to sway any of his committed voters, who don’t believe a word said against him or prefer him come what may, warts and all. It might sway some undecided voters to opt for Gantz, but not in any significant numbers. The most dramatic influence of the backlash now hinges on Gantz’s ability to convert the roar of righteous indignation into the voter enthusiasm he and his party have so far failed to generate. 

In which case, Netanyahu will be undone not by the media or the legal apparatus or his imaginary leftist cabal but by his own abandonment of decency and self-control. He would be a victim, as the Eagles might have put it, of his own device.

3. Notwithstanding Netanyahu’s malarkey about its leftist distortions, much of the Israeli media has uncritically embraced and amplified Likud attacks on Gantz, throwing caution and fact-checking to the wind while exploiting the concocted scandals and inflated deficiencies – including meetings with a psychologist – to the hilt. Now, in a sign of both remorse and resistance, the media is fanning the flames of protest against Netanyahu’s tactics by highlighting their unflattering similarities to Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

The analogies are obvious: Using information hacked by a foreign power to tar your opponent? Check. Alluding to their corrupt moral and family values? Check. Describing them as crooks that should be locked up? Check. Declaring them unfit for office for reasons of mental instability if not downright insanity? Checkmate.

But whether he is or isn’t plagiarizing directly from Trump’s playbook on how to eradicate rivals by insult and innuendo – Netanyahu is, after all, a seasoned dirty trickster himself – the U.S. president’s more profound influence has been on Netanyahu’s soul, which it has thoroughly corrupted. 

>> Seven issues that will decide the Israeli election | Analysis

Trump taught Netanyahu how to abandon any last vestiges of decency, fair play or even a nominal commitment to truth. Trump has removed the last of Netanyahu’s inhibitions, which had hitherto confined if not restrained the prince of darkness lurking within him. If the old Netanyahu resorted on the last Election Day to his infamous and racist false alarm about Arabs coming in droves only to offer a disingenuous apology after his victory, Netanyahu model 2019 wouldn’t even bother. Trump has taught him never to say he’s sorry.

4. Most people already know whom they’ll be voting for next Tuesday, but it is the undecided that will determine the outcome. From now on, the campaign is about them, and them alone.

But even among vacillating voters there are two distinct groups. Pollsters believe that up to 20% voters – one in every five – have yet to make up their minds, but most of them are wavering within their ideological camp.

Their decisions are crucial to the relative size of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud on the right and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan’s on the so-called center-left, which could eventually play a critical role in determining which candidate will get first crack at forming the next government. 

For now, however, the main focus of both parties is on cementing an unassailable blocking majority of 61 Knesset members for their camps: Whoever secures it will be declared the winner. This outcome depends on the sub-group of undecided voters, estimated to be anywhere between 5-8% of the electorate, which could go either way.  Most of these voters will be swayed by their gut instincts about Netanyahu and Gantz personally, which is why the 2019 campaign is already the slimiest on record, and bound to get worse.

5. The electoral influence of the cease-fire with Hamas, which anti-climaxed the outburst of bellicose government threats of massive Israeli retaliation for the missile that destroyed a home in central Israel last week, is difficult to gauge. If Netanyahu sustains serious damage it will be on his right-wing flank, where disgruntlement over the cease-fire is more acute; Former Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who has been vocally advocating all-out war on Hamas, could be the beneficiary.

>> Read more: Calling Gantz 'unstable,' Netanyahu takes a page from Trump's playbook | Yossi Verter ■ How Israel's Iran hacking scandal could ensure Netanyahu's reelection | Explained

As he did in the closing days of the 2015 campaign, Netanyahu can be expected to launch a last minute drive to stop hemorrhaging to his right-wing rivals by topping their gung-ho nationalistic fervor.  In 2019, however, such a strategy entails a double risk. If Netanyahu lurches too drastically, he could lose voters to Gantz. And if he overdoes it, and creates a last minute stampede to Likud from its satellites, he could bring them perilously close to the 3.25% threshold.

If one or more of the Likud’s so-called “natural allies” fail to meet the threshold, their votes won’t be counted and Netanyahu’s chances of forming a blocking majority – and thus of being reelected - will be seriously imperiled.

6. Finally, with nine days left, the outlook is this: According to the polls, Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan are running neck and neck, with a slight but stable advantage to the latter. In terms of the overall bloc, however, Netanyahu has a clear and no less stable advantage, one that could allow him to form a stable-right wing coalition, albeit one beholden to right-wing racists and kooks.

Two significant caveats need to be in mind, however: First, the violent turbulence that is sure to be created by the failure of lists allied with either candidate to pass the threshold, as mentioned above. The second is the slight increase in the number of politicians, pundits, journalists and experts willing, at least in private, to buck the polls and conventional wisdom and to forecast a dramatic last-minute swing that will anoint Gantz as Israel’s next prime minister.

The deviant forecasts of these non-conformists may be based on gut feelings, so-called “deep polls” and qualitative surveys, but they smack of the same kind of wishful thinking that have frequently yielded disappointment and heartbreak in the past. Which is why, for now, the “Gantzers” are keeping their predictions private, though if he wins, they will rush to claim they were the first to know. 

Over the next nine days, Chemi Shalev will write a daily column about the Israeli elections. Sign up to Shalev's author alert, and get each new column delivered directly to your email