Israeli voters who watched Channel 12’s flagship news broadcast on Friday night were presented with a final poll that shows Benjamin Netanyahu headed towards sensational victory in Monday’s elections. Those who prefer rival Channel 13, on the other hand, were given a poll that shows a static electorate with a slight lean to the left about to prolong the excruciating stalemate that forced the elections, the third over the past year, in the first place.
Religious Israelis, who refrain from watching TV on Friday nights, along with many other Israelis who simply couldn’t be bothered were spared any supposed foreknowledge. They must assume that the elections are up for grabs, which, in fact, they are.
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There is no doubt that the polls have been trending Netanyahu’s way over the past few days. But given the ban on conducting polls from Thursday on, there is now no way of knowing whether the trend is gaining strength, maintaining pace or possibly reversing. Center-left voters who wish to ward off despair and despondence are banking on the latter: They are praying that Netanyahu’s litany of dirty tricks and gutter politics have finally crossed the line, reached critical mass and are coming back to bite him.
Whether this is an accurate assessment of voter preferences or no more than wishful thinking, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that in this election, more than ever before, Netanyahu has hit rock bottom. He has left no stone unturned, no red line uncrossed, no slime un-hurled, no value un-shredded, no libel unused, and no rival unsullied, including his prime rival and target for abuse, Benny Gantz.
Consider the past 48 hours alone: On Thursday, Channel 12 published a sensational recording of Yisrael Bachar, strategic adviser to Gantz, portraying his employer as a coward who would never dare attack Iran. Political experts said Bachar’s testimony was potentially crippling for Gantz. In the ensuing hours, however, it turned out that Bachar had been surreptitiously recorded during a private consultation with a rabbi, who was closely linked to Netanyahu’s attorney, and that he had, in fact, met Netanyahu the day before.
The common assumption, which the Prime Minister’s Office failed to categorically deny, is that Netanyahu is the mastermind behind the successful subterfuge. Whether this knowledge deters voters who have already decided to vote for Netanyahu is anyone’s guess, given that their decision was made with the full knowledge that most, if not all, Israeli security chiefs who worked with Netanyahu, in the army, Shin Bet and Mossad, have said far worse about the prime minister’s handling of security affairs than Gantz’s indiscrete adviser, who has no experience in security affairs. And, lest one forget, said voters had already opted to vote for Netanyahu despite the fact that he has been indicted for corruption and is scheduled to appear before the Jerusalem District Court two weeks after the election as a common criminal defendant.
This was followed by a harsh Facebook post composed by lawyer Kobi Cassidy who accused Netanyahu’s son Yair of “raping” his daughter Dana in the public arena after circulating unsubstantiated rumors that she was involved in an extramarital affair with Gantz. Netanyahu junior responded with threats of libel suits against Cassidy and anyone who shared his post, but his reputation precedes him: Yair Netanyahu is considered one of the vilest and most vulgar propagandists for his father, exceeding in ferocity and venality any other Netanyahu fan.
Center-left optimists hope the latest brouhaha involving the Prime Minister’s son will be enough to turn existing public disgust at the first family’s hateful and imperious style into a last-minute change of sentiment. At the very least, the incident shifted the spotlight away from Netanyahu’s ongoing character assassination of Gantz, which, as most recent polls indicated, was hitting its mark at just the right time.
Over the past few weeks, Netanyahu’s smear machine has painted Gantz as corrupt, slow-witted and cowardly. It has resuscitated its April plant about an Iranian hacking of Gantz’s cellphone, spreading well-placed leaks in the media about supposedly embarrassing videos found on the phone that capture Gantz in flagrante delicto, with himself and others. Son Yair was more direct, claiming on Twitter that Gantz sent sex tapes to his lovers during a Gaza operation. Netanyahu has personally tarred the former chief of staff as a traitor who would sell his soul in exchange for support from the largely Arab-supported Joint List, and then sell his country down the river.
Up until this weekend, the last before the election, Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party’s response to the tsunami of Netanyahu-inspired defamation was comprised mostly of fumbles, mumbles and grumbles. Suddenly, on Friday and Saturday night television interviews, a new and reinvigorated Gantz appeared seemingly out of nowhere, feistily hitting back at Netanyahu, angrily rejecting his allegations and forcefully depicting his reelection as a disaster for the future of Israel and its democracy.
Again, it’s anyone’s guess whether Gantz’s strident response will change anyone’s mind to the degree that he or she will bolt from Likud to Kahol Lavan. It may, however, persuade left-leaning voters who have already decided to vote for the Labor-Gesher-Meretz party to Kahol Lavan’s left to recant and return to Gantz’s fold. This won’t change the overall outcome of the election but could ensure that Kahol Lavan emerges with more Knesset seats than the Likud.
The bottom line is that everything hinges on voter turnout. The conventional wisdom holds that voters are suffering from chronic election disease, which portends a further drop from the 69% voter turnout in last September’s election. The question is whether a mostly dormant election campaign, which woke up only in recent days, is an indication of widespread voter apathy or of a deceptive lull before Israelis flock to the polls in greater numbers than expected.
The task of predicting voter turnout is further complicated by an unusual role-reversal in the all-important game of expectations. In most if not all previous Netanyahu election campaigns, the polls favored his opposition to the left, allowing him to mount what has come to be known as a “gevalt” campaign that prods Likud supporters to vote in order to prevent a catastrophic takeover by leftist, Arab-loving heathens. As proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in Netanyahu’s now infamous 2015 Election Day harangue against Arabs coming to the polls in droves. The “gevalt” ploy has invariably led to a last-minute Likud surge, which unfailingly gives Netanyahu a come-from-behind victory that confounds the critics.
This time around, however, the final polls suggest a Likud surge that, if it continues unabated, could give Netanyahu the coveted 61-seat Knesset majority that could, theoretically, allow him to quash his indictment and trash the rule of law in the process. Likud voters are now being urged to vote in order to ensure a Netanyahu win while it is the center left that is, for once, apprehensive and concerned. Again, whether this translates into a similar leftist surge on Election Day remains to be seen.
And then there is the unknown element of voter participation in the Israeli Arab sector. Friday night’s polls already showed an upsurge in support for the Joint List, raising its Knesset representation from 13 to 15. If Israeli Arabs are indeed enraged by Netanyahu’s constant reference to them as a terrorist-supporting Fifth Column, as community leaders assert, they could surpass expectations, giving the Joint List even more than 15 seats and erasing even the slightest chance that Netanyahu could achieve a clear-cut majority.
With 48 hours to go, therefore, this election is essentially wide open for upsets by both sides, though most voters expect results to prolong the extended political stalemate that has paralyzed governance for a whole year. The tie between the political blocs is ostensibly the worst-case scenario, but it may reflect a deeper collective angst: With each side believing its leaders claims that victory by their rivals spells unprecedented national catastrophe, perhaps Israelis figure that it's best to once again hold elections that yield no winner at all.