Three months of election campaigning have passed and, like soldiers stuck in the mud of the trenches in the Great War, the front lines have barely moved. The polls are static and no major issue seems to be motivating voters. It’s a phony election, devoid of nearly all passion.
As Israelis emerge from their summer stupor and enter the last two weeks before Election Day, it remains to be seen whether something or someone can invigorate the battle for the 22nd Knesset.
In the polls so far, very little has moved since the April 9 election. The bloc of right-wing and religious parties won 65 seats then and are now polling on an average of 64. Like before, the two major parties — Likud and Kahol Lavan — are neck-and-neck with perhaps the slightest of advantages to Likud.
There is only one major change: Netanyahu can no longer rely on the support of one of the right-wing parties, Yisrael Beiteinu. And to make matters worse for him, Avigdor Lieberman’s party has more than doubled its tally in the polls — from five seats in April to about 10 now.
If Netanyahu’s potential ruling coalition without Lieberman lacked only one seat for a Knesset majority, now it lacks five or six. Before all the horse trading and coalition calculations that will start the day after September 17, that is the one bar Netanyahu has to pass: To somehow win, together with his remaining allies, 61 seats. But a shift away from the center-left-plus-Lieberman bloc simply doesn’t seem to be happening.
Netanyahu isn’t giving up, of course. He still has every intention of both securing a Lieberman-free majority and ensuring that Likud emerges once again as the largest party, even if by just a few thousand votes. (The gap between Likud and Kahol Lavan was fewer than 25,000 in April.)
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To close the gap multiple factors have to be in Netanyahu’s favor, and he’s pushing on all fronts. These are the main factors:
1. Turnout mystery
Since there’s no precedent for a do-over election, pollsters and political scientists have no clue whether the turnout this time around will be significantly lower. Conventional wisdom and what little evidence there is from countries that have had two elections in a year suggest the turnout will be lower.
In Israel, though, turnout differs widely between the various communities. This usually works to Netanyahu’s advantage, as his ultra-Orthodox allies invariably flock to vote on their rabbis’ orders — and can almost certainly be relied upon to do so this time around as well. On the other hand, turnout among Arab voters is usually much lower than the national average.
But since the Arab turnout plunged to about 49 percent in April (down from 64 percent in 2015), due to what many believe was anger at the failure of the four Arab party leaders to run together, the resurrection of the Joint List could now lead to a resurgence in turnout.
Netanyahu has another turnout worry: his own party’s voters. Since 2014, focus groups conducted by Likud have been detecting a growing “Bibi fatigue” among the party’s traditional supporters. Many of them won’t consider voting for a different party but are tired of Netanyahu’s predictability. This is one of the reasons the prime minister embarked on “gevalt” campaigns in the last days of the previous two campaigns, stoking up hatred of Arabs and the left. He’ll no doubt try to do so this time as well, but it may be less effective. Voters are more tired than ever.
2. Leftist dropouts
Of the nine parties currently predicted to cross the electoral threshold, the two that are still at risk of falling below the 3.25 percent line are both on the center-left.
Labor and Meretz together won a dismal total of only 10 seats in April. In the polls, the Labor-Gesher alliance and the Democratic Union (a merger between Meretz and Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel party) are doing slightly better — but they have a bigger problem than last time around. Under centrist Avi Gabbay, it was much easier to differentiate between Labor and leftist Meretz, enabling them both to hold onto a tiny core of voters, just enough to cross the threshold. This time, Labor has a more staunchly left-wing leader in Amir Peretz, while some believe Meretz has diluted its identity by joining forces with Barak and former Labor Party lawmaker Stav Shaffir.
Voters are moving both ways between the two parties, making it impossible to predict whether they will compensate for each other and keep both above water. Kahol Lavan is also irresponsibly playing for center-left votes. If either party drops below the threshold it will mean that, under the proportional representation system, the redistributed votes will shift at least two seats to the Likud coalition, perhaps allowing Netanyahu to close the gap.
3. The Russian enigma
Netanyahu’s blatant play for Lieberman’s core Russian-speaking vote is probably too transparent to work very well. Likud has left that base to Yisrael Beiteinu for too long, and the way Netanyahu has suddenly pretended to care about Soviet pensions is just risible. Also, the attempt to hold the stick at both ends — with the massive billboards of him shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, followed by the visit to Kyiv, where he was greeted by the anti-Putin Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — was unlikely to have impressed many. More than anything, it was a demonstration of how Netanyahu is leaving no stone unturned. He is leveraging anything he can, and ultimately every vote counts.
4. Haters gonna vote
Netanyahu’s greatest vulnerability in this election is his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties, and Lieberman is exploiting that for all it’s worth. Netanyahu isn’t responding. He is not trying to justify the partnership with Shas and United Torah Judaism, or to portray Lieberman as a secularist devoid of Jewish roots. Likud’s campaign has rightly concluded that there are too many voters who dislike the way he is beholden to the ultra-Orthodox rabbis to put up any credible defense.
But there is also a silver lining. About 10 percent of Israeli voters are Haredi-hating secularists who care about this issue more than the right-left divide. They voted in previous elections for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (now part of Kahol Lavan). If some of them now move to Yisrael Beiteinu, it won’t cause any damage to the Netanyahu coalition and will improve Likud’s chances of emerging as the largest party, his second objective.
5. Cannibalizing like crazy
The leader of the largest party does not necessarily form the government. In 2009, Netanyahu’s Likud had one seat less than Kadima, but its leader, Tzipi Livni, simply didn’t have enough endorsements. The size of your bloc is more important than the size of your party. But it’s undeniable that with the title of largest party comes a psychological and tactical advantage. If Netanyahu loses that title on September 17, the move to replace him will gather momentum. If he beats Kahol Lavan by two or three seats, his position will be much more secure.
To guarantee the title, Netanyahu has embarked on his ritual cannibalizing of right-wing allies even earlier than usual, parking his tanks on Yamina’s lawn. He is relentlessly campaigning in religious Zionist strongholds, spinning stories of how he studies Torah every Shabbat with his youngest son Avner, and peppering his speeches with “With God’s help.” He has the added incentive of a deep suspicion of two of Yamina’s leaders, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, who he is convinced are plotting with Lieberman to replace him.
The cannibalization worked in the past: Religious Zionists have always been susceptible to Bibi’s charm.
6. Disappearing Kulanu voters
Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party just managed to cross the electoral threshold in April, winning the minimum four seats. But Kahlon decided he couldn’t go through it again and accepted Netanyahu’s offer of safe spots on Likud’s slate and staying on as finance minister in the next government.
What did Netanyahu get out of it? If the polls are anything to go by, Kulanu’s voters haven’t returned home with Kahlon. They are soft-core right-wingers and centrists who have fallen out with Netanyahu and won’t go back to voting Likud while he remains leader. It’s not a large group, but at least four parties feel they can win them over — and only one of those parties, Yamina, is in the Netanyahu coalition. If they move to Yisrael Beiteinu, Kahol Lavan or Labor-Gesher, all of which are angling for them, Netanyahu’s chances diminish.
7. Hidden power of Otzma Yehudit
Could the unthinkable happen? The far-right, neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit is still under the electoral threshold in all of the polls. However, in the most recent it is on 2.8 and 2.9 percent — less than half a percentage point from making it into the next Knesset. Netanyahu has already made clear he would include the party in a future coalition: after all, his political survival is worth detoxifying Jewish supremacists.
But this is a dangerous gambit for him. Otzma Yehudit is still most likely not to cross the threshold. But the closer the party gets to 3.25 percent, the more that racists will be inclined to vote for it, thereby jeopardizing votes that otherwise would have likely gone to Yamina or Likud.
8. Black swans
At this point it’s hard to imagine an unforeseen event that could cause a major shift in either direction. Netanyahu had a major scare last week when it seemed President Donald Trump was about to meet Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the G-7 summit in Biarritz. A Trump-Iran rapprochement could have been highly damaging to Netanyahu, who has spent the last two and a half years basing his entire foreign policy on Trump. But Iran’s supreme religious leader vetoed any such meeting and the panic passed.
Now Netanyahu’s people are trying to prevail on the Trump administration for another grand gesture on the eve of the election. But what could Trump still give Netanyahu after withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights? An Israeli voter would have needed to be comatose for the past two years not to know that Trump has Netanyahu’s back.
And even Netanyahu understood that the planned visit to his old friend Indian PM Narendra Modi, eight days before the election, would draw more ridicule than praise and canceled it on Tuesday.
On the plus side for Netanyahu, there probably isn’t anything that could still emerge that will be more damaging than what has already been published. We know just about every minute detail about his alleged corruption and his wife’s greed. And despite it all, he is still by far the most popular candidate for prime minister. A majority of Israelis would prefer that he left, but can’t coalesce around an alternative. The popularity of Kahol Lavan’s leader Benny Gantz has actually gone down since April. Netanyahu could well lose, but it won’t be thanks to Gantz.
9. The Gantz nonfactor
Gantz merits a mention here because he is the leader of the largest opposition party but he is not a factor in the election. The early excitement at his candidacy has petered out and Kahol Lavan’s lackluster campaign has failed to land any blows on Netanyahu. Gantz’s image is no longer that of the responsible and brave general. His muddled interviews and bland manner have caused him more damage than any Likud smear campaign could.
He has one advantage: he is inoffensive. Colorless and flat, voters desperate to get rid of Netanyahu can project their aspirations onto him. But he has no agency. The real battle of this election is between Netanyahu and Lieberman. If the factors don’t work in Netanyahu’s favor, Gantz will end up as Israel’s next prime minister by default.