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Netanyahu racing to victory?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s "disaster" campaign was a big failure in the last two elections, so he decided to take a different approach and relay to voters and supporters that victory is within reach.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to supporters at a Likud party rally as he campaigns ahead of the upcoming elections, in Rishon Lezion near Tel Aviv, Israel February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Amir Cohen - RC273F9ZZ5BG

“We’re just two seats away from victory. I need you. We can only win if we do it together,” Netanyahu tweeted Feb. 27. Flanking a picture of him looking off into the horizon was a link for potential volunteers to join a phone bank on election day. The purpose of that phone bank is to get Likud voters out to vote.

The message is that “Victory is within reach” — with “victory” meaning 61 seats without Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. Netanyahu has been repeating it every evening at packed rallies and campaign events at Likud strongholds throughout the country, as well as on his social media accounts and in interviews with the media. He seems ready at any time or place to talk about the 300,000 Likud supporters who did not vote in the September 2019 election. Some were driven by sheer apathy, while others were convinced that a Likud victory was a certainty in any case. Everyone knows how it turned out.

This message lies at the heart of Netanyahu’s current campaign. It is the engine and force driving it forward. As a strategy, it is the exact opposite of what Netanyahu did in previous elections. In the past, he used negative messaging to intimidate the right by claiming that “right-wing rule is at risk.” The “disaster” campaign identified with Netanyahu had some major successes in past elections, including the election of 2015.  Back then, Netanyahu warned voters that right-wing rule is in danger, because Arabs were heading to the polls in droves.

Netanyahu used the same technique in his last two election campaigns. He warned repeatedly in a hoarse voice that “[Blue and White leaders] Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid are ahead by 4-5 seats, and will soon be forming a left-wing government.” At one of the most climactic moments of the April election, right before people went to the polls, Netanyahu showed up in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market at dusk, all decked out in a suit and tie. Standing on top of one of the stands, he shouted into a microphone, “It may be late, but not too late. … If you don’t go out to vote, you’ll wake up tomorrow morning with Yair Lapid as head of a left-wing government. Get out and vote. … Don’t believe the media. The election is not in our pocket.” Netanyahu did the same thing at bus stations, the beach and in videos he produced. Then election night came around, and he failed to win 61 seats. The same thing happened in the September election.

In this election, Netanyahu has chosen an entirely different strategy. After his failures, he had to create a new campaign for himself under much more difficult circumstances, with his indictment hanging over him as an established fact. Netanyahu began the current election as a lame duck in every sense of the term. The feeling in the Likud — and among right-wing voters in general — was that his career is finished. Under these circumstances, he had to convince the public that he can still win a majority-coalition of 61 seats.

Netanyahu already started his “victory” campaign in early December 2019, when he prepared to compete against former Minister Gideon Saar for the leadership of the Likud. Saar waged an aggressive campaign against him, centered around the logical argument that Netanyahu is blocked from forming a government because of all the legal disqualifications he faces. The argument was potentially lethal. At the time, Netanyahu used to meet with small groups of key Likud party activists at his office in the Likud’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, or at his official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. He mustered up enormous enthusiasm as he explained patiently that this time things will be different, and that he will bring back the 300,000 missing voters.

Three seats disappeared on us. We need to get them back, he said. During his Likud primary campaign, Netanyahu visited every city considered a Likud stronghold, held dozens of gatherings, and charmed and convinced supporters by telling them again and again that he would win 61 seats. On the night of the primary, he walked away with an overwhelming victory. His victory night was also the night that senior Likud officials, ministers and Knesset members grew convinced that not all is lost, and that Netanyahu can extract himself from the situation. The exhilarating mood on the ground continues even now.

Netanyahu has held dozens more events since then. In fact, they have become something of a phenomenon. Every evening, he gets up on stage to address hundreds of people who stood in line for hours to see him. He gives them the show they were waiting for, too. The halls are almost always packed. When he is not on stage, Netanyahu broadcasts live on Facebook, whether from his car or from his yard. He connects personally with Likud supporters who don’t intend to vote, and convinces them to get out of the house and head to the polling booths.

Netanyahu seems to be at his best. He is running a focused, precise and energetic campaign, as if he has no date in court right after the election. Someone close to him described him as never knowing when to stop, for good or for bad. And in fact, Netanyahu hasn’t stopped over the last few months. He is focused on his efforts to bring what he calls “the 300,000 lost voters” back to the polling booths, although it is not at all clear if they even exist at all. At the same time, he also set off on a series of diplomatic jaunts, which took him from the White House to the Kremlin to Uganda. And with all this, he determined and managed the national agenda.

Nevertheless, it was only this week that Netanyahu finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. The most recent polls started showing a shift in trends: The Likud is getting stronger, while the Blue and White party is getting weaker. Netanyahu himself has a significant lead over Gantz in polls gauging who is best suited to serve as prime minister. At this stage of the campaign, Netanyahu has his foot on the gas. He gave the order to launch a vicious personal campaign against Gantz, intended to challenge his fitness to serve as prime minister. But his winning card was convincing people that the Arab Joint List would definitely partner with Gantz. By repeating the message that Gantz can’t form a government without the Arabs, Netanyahu was able to scare voters on the soft right away from Blue and White.

In contrast, the Blue and White party’s campaign went into a tailspin, and is now facing a major crisis at the very end of its campaign. Polls showing that the party is losing strength started to put pressure on all of its leadership, but particularly on Gantz, its candidate for prime minister.

And when it rains, it pours. That's exactly what is happening right now in the Blue and White party. The campaign suffered a harsh blow with the release of a recording Feb. 27, in which Gantz’s strategic adviser Israel Bachar is heard saying in a private conversation that Gantz is a danger to the State of Israel, and that he doesn’t have the courage to attack Iran.

Nevertheless, with just a few days left until the election, Netanyahu is far from achieving his goal of winning 61 seats. Still, he keeps relaying the message that victory is right around the corner. The latest polls give some validity to this message. On the evening of March 2, Israel will find out if Netanyahu was able to do what seemed all but impossible just a week ago.

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