Four Campaign Backfires
Apr 1, 2021 | Herb Keinon
The Israeli election campaign that mercifully came to a close on March 23 was unremarkable.
There were no issues truly debated, other than whether Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is a saint or a scoundrel. There was no excitement. There was little fire.
There was coronavirus, which dominated everything – but it just forced the various campaigns to recalibrate their message.
Instead of Likud saying that Netanyahu was uniquely positioned to advance Israel diplomatically – “a league above the rest” – they said he was uniquely positioned to procure the coronavirus vaccine.
And instead of the anti-Netanyahu forces saying that Netanyahu’s thirst for a coalition to give him immunity from his corruption trial was colouring his decisions on issues of war and peace, they were saying that his personal considerations and legal woes were colouring his decisions regarding dealing with COVID-19.
But there were certain moments in the campaigns – certain steps or advertising campaigns – that were meant to evoke one response, but very well may have elicited the opposite.
Here’s a look at four of election campaign 2021’s boomerang moments.
Former security heads call on Gantz to withdraw from race
The first three weeks of February were very bad for Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party. In six of 19 major polls taken in the first 20 days of the month, the Blue and White Party – which won 33 seats in the previous election – was not passing the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to get into the Knesset. Gantz, holding the title of alternate prime minister, seemed to be rapidly losing elevation.
And then, on February 21, a group of 130 former officers and security heads – led by former prime minister and defence minister Ehud Barak, former Mossad head Danny Yatom and former chief of staff Dan Halutz, took out a full-page advertisement in the country’s newspapers calling on Gantz to step down.
“Benny, enough,” they declared, saying that if he did not drop out of the race, then the votes for his party would go to waste as it was unlikely to make it past the electoral threshold. Gantz, incensed by the advertisement, said those who signed it “shot him in the back.”
But rather than accusing those who signed the letter of abandoning him and shooting him in the back, Gantz should have sent them a bouquet of flowers. Because in every major poll since that letter, Gantz passed the electoral threshold, polling consecutively at between four to five seats and ended up finishing with eight.
What happened? Barak and fellow security experts have written open letters in the past, including in support of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and in favour of the Iranian nuclear deal. Barak has also warned that Netanyahu was leading Israel into a diplomatic tsunami. Reality, in each of those cases, turned out significantly different. One senior political journalist wrote that if the list of officers that signed that letter said X, then Y would probably happen. It has proven true this time. Once they called on Gantz to stop, Blue and White’s numbers started to rise.
Lieberman’s anti-haredi campaign
Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu Party has had a fascinating trajectory. It entered the Knesset in 1999 with four seats, seen as a niche party representing Russian-speaking immigrants.
Benefiting from the huge influx of immigrants in the 1990s, the party grew to 11 seats in 2006 and 15 in 2009, with Lieberman at one time talking of himself as a future prime minister.
But then the party’political fortunes began to fade, dropping to only six seats in the 2015 elections and five seats in the April 2019 election.
It is then that Lieberman – known until that time primarily for his far-right anti-Arab rhetoric and positions – shifted gears to stridently anti-ultra-Orthodox (haredi) rhetoric. With his natural voting base – elderly Russian immigrants – dying out, and the new generation of Russian speakers no longer in need of an immigrant party, he badly needed a new niche. He found it in the segment of the population angry and frustrated over haredi control over religious life in the country, the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox to be conscripted en masse into the army and perceived “religious coercion”.
Lieberman targeted the anti-haredi vote and it worked, with his party winning eight seats in the September 2019 election, though it then dropped to seven last year.
And then coronavirus hit, and latent anti-haredi feelings burst forth with a passion as segments of the ultra-Orthodox population openly flouted the COVID-19 regulations. The atmosphere was perfect for an anti-haredi campaign, and Lieberman went at it full force, culminating in his comment in mid-March that Netanyahu and the ultra Orthodox should be carted out in a wheelbarrow to the trash heap.
Interestingly, however, this campaign did not help Lieberman’s party that much at the ballot box. He won only seven seats, no better than he did the last time around.
Yet while Lieberman’s anti-haredi campaign did not give him a significant lift in the polls, it very well may have boosted his nemesis: the ultra-Orthodox parties. With many ultra-Orthodox voters angry at the community’s political leadership for its behaviour during the crisis, and with talk that some in this generally very disciplined voting bloc were likely to either stay home or vote for the ultra-conservative Religious Zionist party, Lieberman’s attacks likely incentivised more ultra-Orthodox Israelis to come out and vote.
Lieberman’s attacks – aimed at burying the haredi parties – may actually have ended up strengthening them.
Weekly protests against Netanyahu
A crowd of tens of thousands of people – organisers put the number at 50,000, while the police estimated about half of that – gathered yet again on March 20, the Saturday night before the election, around the corner from the Prime Minister’s residence on Balfour Road in Jerusalem.
For 39 consecutive weeks – regardless of the weather, or the country’s coronavirus rate of infection – an alliance of groups with names like “Crime Minister” and the “Black Flags” have been demonstrating in front of the Prime Minister’s office and at various other intersections around the country – declaring Netanyahu corrupt, demanding that he resign, and claiming to be the true guardians of Israeli democracy.
These demonstrations over the last months provided powerful optics and created an atmosphere that one can argue contributed to the eventual collapse of the Government. It is not immediately clear, however, what effect these protests – especially the large one on March 20 – had on the voters.
Those attending the protests who agree with the message that Netanyahu is a crook who must be removed at all cost are highly motivated to go out and vote, and will surely do so.
Paradoxically however, they may also have motivated apathetic Likud voters who might otherwise have decided to stay home on election day – except that they were put off by the cacophony of the protests and voted, if only to demonstrate that a prime minister is removed at the ballot box, not by weekly protests.
Netanyahu’s hunt for a diplomatic coup
It’s not enough for Netanyahu to have projected himself over the years as master of diplomacy, he wants the Israeli people to feel it, taste it and internalise it.
That explains why the US recognition of the Golan Heights took place two weeks before the first election in this cycle in April 2019, why he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi days before the second election in September 2019, and why he went to Washington to receive then-president Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” just before the election last March.
But this year, without Trump able to give him diplomatic gifts, and with Putin not delivering something sufficiently dramatic, Netanyahu sought a high-profile visit to the United Arab Emirates in the waning days of the campaign.
Such a visit would have highlighted the Abraham Accords – Israel’s freshly minted agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – which to Likud’s chagrin have not made a significant dent in this campaign. Had coronavirus not monopolised the country’s bandwidth over the last year, these accords – and Netanyahu’s role in securing them – would likely have played a more prominent role in this election.
So Netanyahu tried to go to the UAE. The effort backfired, however, as Jordan would not let his plane fly over on March 11; and the Emiratis subsequently made it known that they were not interested in meddling in the Israeli campaign; and that hosting some kind of summit between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Netanyahu and senior US government officials would constitute such meddling.
As a result, no visit took place. Instead, some of the shine was taken off Netanyahu’s image as “Mr. Diplomacy”. Netanyahu procured COVID-19 vaccines, and that should have been enough for the campaign. But instead, the campaign reached for more. As a Talmudic dictum goes, “Try to grab too much, and you will end up with nothing.”