4/2/19 How Low Can the Elections Go

Israelis are going to the polls in a week. A discussion with a group of Likud-leaning voters this morning, tells the story of this election campaign, in a nutshell. One declared, “All the politicians are corrupt”; a second agreed and said, “Yes! And better a competent Prime Minister, and not one who has psychological problems”. 

Netanyahu is no longer able to claim that nothing will come of the police investigations into him, since the State Prosecutors and Attorney General have all recommended he be indicted. So, instead he has convinced his voters that all politicians are corrupt, and if they are all corrupt, at least he is good at his job. At least among his supporters, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has run a very successful campaign.

So how did he do it? … Not with a traditional campaign.

There is no public election campaign taking place. There are few ads on buses, no large public election rallies, and nobody handing out stickers or leaflets on streets. Instead, this current campaign is being mounted almost entirely on Facebook and Twitter, with campaigns continually releasing caustic videos.

Ideology, platforms, and even electoral promises have played nearly no part in this contest.  Rather, this election campaign has been focused around two main questions — i.e. Should Netanyahu be re-elected? And are those who seek to replace him capable of doing the job?

Last week, the election campaign was in a state of semi-standstill, as the possibility of another Gaza war became very real. Netanyahu had hoped his trip to Washington and his meeting with President Donald J. Trump (who all but endorsed him), would be the defining moment of his re-election campaign. However, sudden rocket fire at the center of the country, courtesy of Hamas, quickly took over the news cycle, and Netanyahu felt compelled to return to Israel after his meeting with Trump.

Netanyahu made every effort not to allow events in Gaza to spiral into a war with Hamas. He ordered the Air Force to make sure its retaliatory strikes for Hamas’ missile attack only hit empty buildings and emplacements. Not one member of Hamas was killed, and only a few were wounded in over 100 sorties over Gaza. The result: 63% of Israelis stated they were not happy with Netanyahu’s handling of the latest Gaza confrontation; with only 27% asserting he had done a good job. However, despite these statistics, support for re-electing Netanyahu does not seem to have dipped.

Part of the continued support for the PM is, no doubt, due to the most massive negative campaign ever run against a political candidate in Israel’s history. From the moment Benny Gantz announced his Knesset run, the Likud campaign (directed personally by Netanyahu) have hurled one accusation after another at the former IDF Chief. 

First, they painted Gantz as “a Leftist”. Then, they alleged he was a sexual predator in his youth. Next, they contended the Iranians could blackmail him. Then, they asserted Gantz was corrupt. Finally, during the last few days, they spread unsubstantiated claims that he was mentally ill and could not be trusted. According to a recent report, all of the Likud’s election allegations have been amplified via hundreds of fake Twitter accounts, which had seemingly coordinated their social media barrage with the campaign of the Likud.

Likud representatives have defended their actions, claiming the Blue & White Party had gone beyond the pale, by implying Netanyahu might have acted treasonously in the “Submarine Affair”. Until recently, the “Submarine Affair” (Case 4000) has focused on the question of government members, who received bribes to induce Israel to unnecessarily purchase additional submarines and corvettes. 

Last week, Case 4000 took a turn, as Netanyahu admitted he alone had approved Germany’s sale of advanced submarines to Egypt, without consulting the Defense Minister, or the Army Chief of Staff. In addition, the depth of Netanyahu’s relationship with the cousin who facilitated his profiting from millions of dollars from the sale of shares in a company bought by one of the German submarine manufacturer’s main suppliers, became more clear.

With one week to go, polls show the Blue and White Party holds a modest lead over Netanyahu’s Likud party. The President is responsible to choose which leader receives the first opportunity to build a coalition; that person has traditionally been the leader of the party most likely to successfully form a government. Based on current polls, the President is likely to tap Netanyahu. But that is not a sure thing. 

Current polls indicate there are seven parties close to dropping below the numbers needed to get into parliament — five of which officially support Netanyahu, and two that do not. Under the rules of the Israeli system, all votes cast for parties failing to meet the threshold are lost. Moreover, it is unclear if Gantz’s party earns substantially more votes than Netanyahu’s party, whether those who claim they support Netanyahu will indeed recommend him to form the next government. Furthermore, with multiple indictments against Netanyahu looming, do parties really want to explain to their constituents why they deem it acceptable to sit in a government with a leader who has been charged with accepting bribes by the State? 

Finally, there is the “surprise party” of this year's election, named “Zehut”. The Zehut party is run by MK Moshe Feiglin, whose views on the Palestinians are very far to the right. That being said, Feiglin has chosen to run on a platform, whose core issue is legalization of marijuana. In addition, much of Feiglin’s remaining platform is extremely libertarian — e.g. calling for the total elimination of the safety net. Current polls predict Feiglin will receive between 5-7 seats, which is enough to swing the election between the right-wing and left-wing blocs. While ideologically Zehut would fit better in a Netanyahu right-wing government, Feiglin has made it clear he is open to Blue and White, as well. To further complicate the matter, there is extreme personal animus between Feiglin and Netanyahu.

Netanyahu has announced he will go to Moscow to meet Putin, five days before the vote. What other world leader could be endorsed both by Trump and Putin? 

The last week of any Israeli election campaign is alway the most intense With 20% of the voters still undecided, most Israelis are bracing for what is expected to be the most vile week in the history of Israeli politics to-date.