Strategists and pollsters call it “Bibi fatigue.” It’s irrelevant to the half of Israeli voters, who already loathe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it certainly applies to the other half, made up of his supporters or just people who think that he is a good prime minister. There is a creeping awareness among these voters who are not part of Netanyahu’s hard-core base that he has exhausted all he has to offer. They have grown tired of the cacophony surrounding him and the endless racket raised by him and his supporters. They are weary of the muck being slung in every direction and the personality cult surrounding that surrounds the prime minister. While some will not yet admit that they are ready for someone new in the office, they have their concerns.
It is exactly this phenomenon that Netanyahu is now fighting. The only person who could never suffer from “Bibi fatigue” is the man himself. He certainly isn’t exhausted. Even at 70, he has been crisscrossing the country at a killer pace. His previous two campaigns focused on intense online activity including Facebook videos and live social network broadcasts round the clock. This time, Netanyahu has decided to leave the web and go back to his roots, to go out into the field and breathe fresh life into his faltering camp, to spread his optimism and convince his supporters that the task in front of him is possible.
As part of this campaign, the Likud has been passing around polls showing that the Netanyahu camp is now approaching 61 seats. People tend to react to these polls with skepticism. The numbers have not been confirmed by independent polls. But the basic idea is obvious to everyone. Netanyahu isn’t fighting to reach 61 seats. He is fighting to prevent the opposing camp from achieving a Jewish majority. Netanyahu knows what Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz and Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman are planning. They want to win 54 seats, in the hope of leaving the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc with just 53 seats. (According to all the polls, the Joint List would win the remaining 13.) This breakdown would allow Gantz to swear in a new government consisting of 54 seats, with the Joint List abstaining. Then Liberman could stick to his principles, something he was unable to do last time around. Netanyahu is fighting against that scenario. While the prospect of winning a 61-seat majority now seems like a lost cause, a Jewish majority is still possible.
Netanyahu is fighting to win every vote. He is investing enormous effort to win back the Ethiopian constituency, part of which abandoned him last time for Blue and White. He has managed to recruit an Ethiopian Knesset member from Blue and White while announcing that he plans to bring another 400 Ethiopian Jews to Israel who have waited years to immigrate. He went after the angry taxi drivers by putting the reforms proposed by the Ministry of Transportation and small businesses collapsing under the tax burden and bureaucracy by appointing a special adviser to focus on the issue. On Feb. 9, his government approved tens of millions of shekels in aid to the town of Ashkelon, which continues to suffer from rocket fire from Gaza. Every vote is important in Netanyahu's effort to preserve a Jewish majority. So he is using every ruse and dirty trick available and proving yet again that it is too early to eulogize him.
Even the people closest to Netanyahu and his most ardent supporters have no idea what could extricate him from the mire in which he has been stuck ever since Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit indicted him for serious crimes.
“Let’s assume that he is able to prevent Gantz from winning a Jewish majority or even that he actually manages to win 61 seats,” one senior Likud member commented to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Does Netanyahu really believe that he can run the most complicated and challenged state in the world when he has court appearances four times a week from morning to afternoon? … Does he believe that his coalition partners would allow that to happen? That the public can handle it?”
No one has a clear answer. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been ignoring the issue, more focused than ever before on campaigning. One of his greatest dangers is that Yamina seniors Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, former minister Ayelet Shaked and Knesset member Matan Kahana might defect from their party after the March 2 election and join up with Blue and White. At an election rally this week, Netanyahu admitted that the only reason he appointed Bennett to be his defense minister was to prevent such a thing. The fear of Bennett defecting was enough to appoint him to the most volatile, sensitive and important portfolio in the entire cabinet. If he had made such a confession just a few years earlier, it would have triggered a political earthquake. Now, however, it passed under the radar and almost no one mentioned it. With Netanyahu’s envoys and agents lashing out regularly at the legal system and threatening the rule of law, no one is even reacting to the prime minister engaging in horse-trading with Israel’s holy of holies, the defense establishment, for his narrow personal interests. We are used to it.
At this stage, Blue and White is having a hard time responding to Netanyahu’s stirring daily appearances. The only person in the party who is giving the prime minister a real fight is former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who also heads the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The other former chiefs of staff who lead Blue and White are focused on a much more basic concern: preventing Israel from getting swept up in a military operation or adventure on the eve of the election as a result of the stark situation facing the country’s current leader. The barrel of gunpowder in which Israel has been thriving for the past 71 years could be ignited at any moment as a result of some poor or mistaken decision by one of the sides. So far, the most dismal predictions that Netanyahu will throw open the gates of hell for the country to avoid his personal one have been false. But now the moment of truth is approaching.
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