Israel Pulse

Has the clock run out for Netanyahu?

Article Summary
Many factors will help determine the outcome of Israeli elections, including general apathy and whether voters feel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has overstayed his welcome.

At the beginning of the campaign for the April 9 Israeli elections, it seemed the whole cycle would focus on one question: Can the party of a prime minister suspected of serious crimes win the support of the masses for another term and allow him to break the record for time in office set by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister?

It seemed for a moment that the campaign was all but over when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, subject to a hearing, but the polls — which have played a major role in this campaign despite having been so off the mark in the past — revealed that Mandelblit's decision had had no real effect.

Later, an unrelenting series of events, some seemingly calculated, some not, appeared certain to influence voters, among them embarrassing election ads, leaked recordings from closed meetings that supposedly revealed candidates’ “other faces,” conflict with Hamas on the border and rocket fire from Gaza into the heart of Israel. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited March 21, and Netanyahu accompanied him to the Western Wall. Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro visited, and Netanyahu took him to the wall as well. Toward the end of the campaign, the remains of the missing soldier Zachary Baumel were returned home from Syria. There were speeches to the AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying group, and another meeting between Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump at the White House.

Someone leaked information that Iran had hacked the private cell phone of Lt. Gen. (ret.) Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party and Netanyahu's main rival, but no one understands why Gantz was being blamed for it. It’s not exactly like Israel's national security adviser and his delegation forgetting classified documents at an airport restaurant on their way to India in January.

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None of these events appear to have affected the polls either. From the moment the three generals from Blue and White — Gantz along with Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — joined forces with Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid, they took the lead in most polls, wearing the mantle of the soft right but attracting only little support from that camp. It drew most of its supporters from parties on the left, in particular Labor and Hatnua, the latter of which is not running.

In short order, the generals created a project with the primary message of sanity and integrity and surpassed Netanyahu's Likud in popularity. Their problem is that their efforts to present themselves as a centrist party — with the premature claim that there is no longer a left or a right — did not go over well.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu failed to present his experience and his diplomatic skills in response to assertions that he has been in power for far too long and that the cloud of corruption will not allow him to continue holding the reigns. He did not succeed in convincing the public that the band of generals posed a security and diplomatic threat to Israel, and his effort to damage Lapid as the weak link in the new party also failed. 

The 2019 electoral contest has been a modern campaign. It was crude, but lacked physical violence, sweaty mass rallies, direct mailings and debates between heads of major parties. Election broadcasts were watched by only a few, and one hardly found political ads in newspaper. Social media platforms played the role of the town square, and voters were fed personal interest stories instead of broadcasts delivering diplomatic and economic messages. The candidates found themselves cooking, wearing slippers or appearing on middling entertainment shows to reach prime time audiences, delivering their messages between jokes and artificial smiles.

Netanyahu displayed his talent for cynical political maneuvering and crafted the Union of Right-Wing Parties, an alliance of the extreme right including the heirs of the ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane. He also made an unprecedented and almost inconceivable promise to HaBayit HaYehudi, the union's main partner — the 28th spot on the Likud’s Knesset list. Netanyahu announced that he would give up this spot right after the elections. In other words, if the Likud wins 28 seats or more, the candidate who is 28th on Likud's list will quit the Likud's Knesset faction, and a union member will be given that position.

Anonymous messages appeared on social networks about various candidates along with accusations that couldn’t be confirmed or disproved. Netanyahu held “news conferences” during news broadcasts, but the public quickly learned not to expect any actual news from his appearances.

Four months after this strange election season began, it appeared that only the Likud or Blue and White held the potential to win enough votes to cobble together a government without forming a coalition with another party. Likud, although battered, has the better chance of creating a coalition, which could be even more right wing than the current government, the most right wing thus far in Israel's history. According to current assessments, it seems the best Blue and White can now hope for is a national unity government, which would be more moderate in respect to diplomacy and governance, stop the war on the courts and fix several discriminatory and authoritarian laws. The difference between these two options is big, obviously. 

On what will the election results ultimately depend? Whether the right-wing Kulanu or Yisrael Beitenu, the more centrist parties like Gesher, or the Arab Ra’am-Balad on the left manage to surpass the vote threshold. According to the polls, if they can be believed, Zehut's extremist right-wing leader Moshe Feiglin has already secured its place in the next Knesset. 

The election results also depend on some 30% of the public that doesn't care to vote, those people who believe that there is no real difference between the parties and that all politicians are corrupt liars. Only after the election, if they experience personal harm, will they understand for a moment, before returning to their apathy, that perhaps there are differences between the parties. Whether those who stay at home would have been left- or right-wing voters will be consequential, assuming of course that there is still a right and a left. 

There have been no deep differences expressed by the leading parties — not on the issue of Gaza, on a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, on education or on health care — so after the election, the most important issue could be whether Netanyahu should be allowed to continue. If Gantz's party wins, and he becomes the next prime minister, it will not be because the majority believed him to be the man best suited for the job. Rather, it will be because the majority believed him to be the only man capable of preventing Netanyahu from returning to a job he’s not fit to hold. 

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Found in: Israeli elections

Yossi Beilin has served in various positions in the Knesset and in Israeli government posts, the last of which was justice and religious affairs minister. After resigning from the Labor Party, Beilin headed Meretz. He was involved in initiating the Oslo process, the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement, the Geneva Initiative and Birthright.

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