Israeli election campaign reaches homestretch

Mar 19, 2021 | AIJAC staff

(Credit: Gil Cohen Magen/Shutterstock)
(Credit: Gil Cohen Magen/Shutterstock)

Update from AIJAC


03/21 #03


Israelis are set to vote – for the fourth time in two years – on next Tuesday, March 23. This Update is devoted to analysis of the latest developments in the campaign, and the key factors likely to ultimately decide the outcome.

We lead with Israeli journalist and electoral statistics specialist Shmuel Rosner, raising five factors to look at in understanding what is going on in the campaign. The key question is whether Netanyahu can gather support from 61 parliamentarians to gain a majority of the Knesset – something he has failed to do over the past three elections, as have his rivals. Whether he can do so will depend in part on whether a number of small parties get enough votes to meet Israel’s electoral threshold of 3.25%, and the stance of Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, without whose support any 61-seat coalition for Netanyahu looks virtually impossible. For Rosner’s exploration of these and other key factors, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a more specific review of recent important events in the campaign from the British thinktank BICOM. This factsheet looks at the recent messaging from all the key parties and their electoral logic. It also includes some recent polling  – which suggests another deadlock may be the outcome.  For all the details,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer a more analytical discussion of the campaign and its likely denouement from Times of Israel editor David Horovitz. As well as focussing on Bennett’s potential role, and the problem of some parties potentially not crossing the electoral threshold, Horovitz also explores the key role of Israel’s coronavirus vaccine program in this election. Furthermore, he does an excellent job of summarising the primary arguments of the anti-Netanyahu and pro-Netanyahu camps that are defining this election. For Horovitz’s valuable insights in full, CLICK HERE.

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The Last Week: A Short Guide to Israel’s Coming Elections

By Shmuel Rosner

Jewish Journal, March 15, 2021

Next Tuesday is rapidly coming, and with it, Israel’s fourth election in two years. Here are the five things to look at and remember as you prepare — anxiously or indifferently — for this crucial day of voting.

Are there 61 seats for Netanyahu?
Forming an Israeli coalition is an exhausting exercise, but the basic rules are simple: 61 seats are needed for a coalition to form. Thus, the main thing all analysts and politicians will be looking for when the exit polls are publicized (next Tuesday at 10 pm Israel time) is whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the potential for a 61-seat coalition.

To have it, he will need Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism, Religious Zionism and Yamina to have a combined 61 or more seats. If this happens, the prospects for Netanyahu to have a coalition are good. Another option for Netanyahu — although not as convenient — is for these parties to get close to 61 (say, 59) and for the Islamist party Raam to cross the electoral threshold. In such a case, Netanyahu could potentially form a minority government with Raam supporting it from the outside (in exchange for political goodies).

Campaign ads for Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party (top) and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party (bottom)

What does Bennett want?
If Netanyahu has 61 seats, his main challenge will be luring Yamina into his coalition. The pressure on Yamina’s leader, Naftali Bennett, will grow, but the young(er) leader will not be an easy customer.

Bennett is sold on the idea that he is the kingmaker of this election. As the head of the only party that did not commit to a Netanyahu camp or to a never-Netanyahu camp, he can theoretically attempt to get the highest possible reward for his newfound power — becoming prime minister. Can he? The number of seats he is forecasted to have — maybe a little more than ten — suggests no. But seats are not a legal barrier to being the PM, so Bennett can say it is either PM or nothing.

But Netanyahu has already said no to Bennett becoming PM. So, Bennett’s dilemma could be as follows: go with Bibi as defense minister or maybe as a deputy PM, or go with his rivals and be the PM (That is, if they agree to let him be the PM. If they do not agree to such a proposition, his cards will suddenly seem less valuable). Most analysts agree that since Bennett believes the future to be on the right side of the political spectrum, he will probably go with Netanyahu after all.

Who crosses the threshold?
The most important factor in the calculus of winners and losers next week is the electoral threshold of 3.25%. At least four parties are close to the threshold — leftist Meretz, centrist Blue and White, Islamist Raam and rightist Religious Zionism. The Labor party is also not far from the red zone. So, on the night of the election, we might be in a situation in which a number of parties are too close to call, with 15 to 25 seats on the line (out of 120). Even one of these parties can make the difference between victory and defeat.

This situating is a fascinating test of political psychology. Voters must choose whether to go with their first choice — which could go underwater — or vote for a safer party. Put another way, Meretz voters who insist on Meretz could discover that because of them, Netanyahu kept his seat. And Religious Zionism voters could discover that because of them, Netanyahu lost his seat.

What can the opposition do?
Those who do not want Netanyahu to keep his seat — representing a majority of Israeli voters but not necessarily of Knesset seats — must patiently wait for the numbers. If Netanyahu and Bennett can form a 61-member coalition, they can make Bennett an offer (being PM) and see what happens, but not much more than that. If Netanyahu and Bennett cannot form a 61-member coalition, they must still find a way to form a coalition from a variety of parties that aren’t a good fit. For example, Bennett would not sit with Meretz; Israel Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman would not sit with Haredi parties; New Hope’s Gideon Saar would not sit with the Joint List.

Basically, according to current polls, there are two main options for a coalition without Netanyahu. One is a coalition based around Bennett, Lapid and Saar, with the addition of Blue and White, Israel Beiteinu and Labor. Another one is a coalition of Bennett and Saar, with the addition of the two Haredi parties and Lapid.

Why is the second coalition problematic? Because it is not at all clear that the Haredi parties will be willing to join (and ditch Likud and Netanyahu). Why is the first coalition problematic? Because both Bennett and Saar vowed to be a part of a right-tilting coalition, and in a coalition with Lapid, Lieberman, Gantz and Labor, such a claim would be unconvincing.

So, what is the forecast?
It’s a very close call.

The electoral threshold makes it complicated, the relative exhaustion of the voters makes it complicated and coronavirus makes it complicated.

We don’t know. We must be patient.

Campaigning heats up eight days ahead of election

BICOM, 15th March 2021

Election ads from Avigdor Leiberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party (top), running on an anti-Ultra-Orthodox platform, and Benny Gantz of Blue and White, who is flirting with missing the electoral threshold (bottom)

What happened: As the election campaign enters the final stage, parties are sharpening their messages to try and maximise their votes on Election Day.

  • At a campaign rally last night Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that anyone who has difficulty voting Likud should vote for the Religious Zionist Party.
  • Earlier yesterday, in his first campaign visit inside the West Bank, Netanyahu visited the outpost Givat Harel. He said: “I swear to you. If I create a strong right-wing government without a rotation, I will take care of the settlements and the authorisation of the young settlements.” (Young settlements are a euphemism for non-recognised outposts).
  • Meanwhile, the Religious Zionist Party are appealing for votes within the ultra-Orthodox sector, especially with younger men disappointment with United Torah Judaism.
  • Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, caused controversy late last week when he appeared on a daytime TV chat show and said he would take “the ultra-orthodox and Bibi on a wheelbarrow together to the rubbish dump”. He was widely criticised across the board for incitement.
  • Yair Lapid, the leader of Yesh Atid, appears to be targeting the potential voters of the smaller parties within the centre-left block, primarily his former ally Blue and White, but also Labour and Meretz. Yesh Atid’s message states: “Parties with 5 seats don’t replace the government and parties with 6 don’t save democracy.”
  • The Labour Party has so far not targeted Lapid. A Labour source told Yediot Ahronot: “Lapid failed to win over right-wing voters to himself … he’s giving Bibi the government on a silver platter. If Lapid continues to act irresponsibly and undermines the possibility of replacing Netanyahu, the Labour Party won’t hesitate to use the campaign we prepared against Lapid about his zigzagging.”
  • Ofer Berkovitch, a Jerusalem City Councillor and candidate for New Hope, was accosted yesterday by Likud supporters while campaigning in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. This was the second reported incident of Likud supporters targeting Gideon Saar’s supporters. On Saturday night a New Hope event was interrupted by Likud supporters with megaphones and eggs were thrown, injuring one person. Saar said afterwards, “Netanyahu has completely lost it. Bibi, I’m not afraid of you! In another ten days I’ll replace you.” 

Context: Lapid is appealing to voters inside the centre-left bloc in an effort break his party’s 20-seat ceiling.

  • Netanyahu is working inside the right-wing bloc by targeting voters of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and to strengthen the Religious Zionist Party.
  • In the latest poll in Channel 13 News, Likud receives 28 seats, Yesh Atid: 20, Yamina: 11, New Hope: 9, Joint List: 8, United Torah Judaism: 7, Yisrael Beiteinu: 7, Shas: 6, Labour: 6, Religious Zionists: 6, Blue and White: 4, Meretz: 4, United Arab List: 4. Although Bennett remains uncommitted to either camp, if he were to endorse Netanyahu, this would give the pro-Netanyahu bloc and the anti-Netanyahu bloc 58 mandates each, with the United Arab List non-aligned.
  • Earlier in the campaign, in an effort to seal the merger of National Union and Jewish Power, Netanyahu agreed to a National Union representative to be placed on the Likud list. He also signed a surplus vote agreement with the Religious Zionist Party.
  • In parallel, Netanyahu also included a Muslim Arab on the Likud list to appeal to Israeli Arab voters.
  • According to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 31 per cent of Arab Israeli voters said they want Netanyahu to remain prime minister, while 56 per cent said they do not. Among the Jewish population, 43 per cent support Netanyahu as leader, while 52 per cent do not.

Looking ahead: On Saturday night, the anti-Netanyahu protest movement is planning to hold its largest rally outside the Prime Minister’s residence. However, some commentators are warning that this will only help motivate Netanyahu supporters to vote on 23 March.

  • Legal experts are divided on what happens if Blue and White do not make it over the electoral threshold and Gantz is not re-elected. Can he continue to serve as alternate prime minister in the interim? Maariv notes the opinion of Professor Suzy Navot who believes he can, but other legal experts are less certain. The attorney general has refused to answer that question while it remains theoretical.

Will Netanyahu’s vaccine success outweigh his rivals’ warnings about democracy?


Four insights as Israel prepares for Election IV, the least ideological vote yet and the most personal referendum on our longest-serving prime minister

David Horovitz

Times of Israel, March 18, 2021

If Benjamin Netanyahu is reelected next week, there will be no doubting the central role played by his handling of Israel’s vaccination drive.

In a TV interview last week, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla admitted to being “impressed, frankly, with the obsession of your prime minister” in seeking to persuade his company that Israel was the perfect national testing ground for Pfizer’s vaccines. “He called me 30 times,” Bourla marveled.

Because Netanyahu secured early and plentiful supplies, Israel has led the world in vaccination per capita, with barely a million eligible Israelis yet to be vaccinated. As a direct consequence, Israel has been able to gradually reopen most of the economy in the last few days without witnessing a rise in contagion levels and with the number of serious COVID-19 cases falling by the day.

Despite criticism of other aspects of his handling of the pandemic, Netanyahu’s dogged efforts to obtain coronavirus vaccines and Israel’s world-leading vaccination program are clearly helping him in the polls (Credit: By PalSand, Shutterstock)

Netanyahu’s rivals charge that Israel, with over 6,000 COVID fatalities, has not performed well in terms of its per capita death rate — we’re 55th worst in the world, as of this writing, with about 170 countries faring better — and they argue that this stems at least in part from his politicized decision not to implement the so-called traffic light system. This system was intended to impose more restrictive lockdowns on higher-contagion areas, but since many of those areas were densely populated ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods, and since Netanyahu was wary of alienating the ultra-Orthodox electorate and its Knesset members, these differentiated closures were not generally imposed.

Critics such as Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid have cited nearby Cyprus to highlight Netanyahu’s ostensible failure in this regard — with a population a tenth of Israel’s, it has a death toll, at 240, that’s about a 25th of Israel’s. And while Netanyahu has countered that Cyprus, being an island, is easy to seal off, Lapid noted in a ToI interview earlier this month that Israel only had to close down a single airport — while Cyprus has two — yet failed to do so effectively.

Nonetheless, asked in recent polls whether they are satisfied with the government’s handling of the pandemic, an increasing proportion of the electorate is saying yes: 57% in a Channel 12 survey Tuesday night, compared to 44% when asked the same question two weeks ago.

Most Israelis are still telling the pollsters they doubt Netanyahu’s assertion that COVID-19 is truly behind us, but should the statistics on falling contagion rates and falling numbers of seriously ill virus patients hold firm until Tuesday, it will be an increasingly COVID-upbeat Israel that goes to the polls, and that can only benefit Netanyahu.

The kingmaker’s dilemma

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett is position himself to hopefully be the kingmaker, as well as insisting he is a potential Prime Minister. (Photo Creator: Mati Milstein, Flickr | License details

No opinion poll in this campaign has shown the pro-Netanyahu camp anywhere near the magic 61 figure — the narrowest majority in the 120-member Knesset.

Rather, Likud, the two ultra-Orthodox parties and Religious Zionism are heading for somewhere in the region of 50 seats between them. While allowing for the fact that the pollsters sometimes underestimate Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties, and that Netanyahu is an incomparable election day get-out-the-vote campaigner, even he probably doubts that those four parties alone will propel him to victory. Rather, he is betting on reaching 61-plus with the support of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina.

Several polls suggest this is arithmetically well within reach, since Yamina is polling at 10-12 seats. The question is whether Bennett, who is adamant that Netanyahu needs to go and that he himself should be prime minister, would agree to serve in a Netanyahu-led government, and if so in what role.

Netanyahu has explicitly said he will not agree to “rotate” the premiership with Bennett and would certainly not allow Bennett to go first in any such arrangement. Bennett, having seen what became of Netanyahu’s rotation promise to Blue and White’s “alternate prime minister” Benny Gantz, almost certainly wouldn’t agree to go second.

Bennett insists he won’t serve in a coalition led by Yesh Atid’s Lapid. He said on Tuesday he’ll be the “responsible adult” ensuring a right-wing government after the elections. He said he’ll approach New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar to try to ensure this. He also said that “in the end, the public will decide.”

If, in the end, the public leaves Bennett with the choice between serving under Netanyahu, struggling to construct a hugely improbable, wildly diverse anti-Netanyahu coalition, or forcing Israel into yet a fifth election, what will he do? What would his voters want him to do?

Who’s wasting votes?

In Israel’s multi-party system, elections can be won and lost on wasted votes — i.e., ballots that are cast for parties that fail to clear the 3.25% threshold and thus are not counted when Knesset seats are allocated. As of this writing, the pro-Netanyahu camp would appear to have a major advantage over the anti-Netanyahu camp in this regard.

Of the Netanyahu-supporting parties, only the Religious Zionism party led by Bezalel Smotrich is hovering near the threshold, but most polls see it safely making it into the Knesset, with 4-5 seats. Of the anti-Netanyahu parties, by contrast, Meretz and Blue and White are polling dangerously close to the threshold. So, too, is Ra’am, an Arab party that split away from the Joint List and that Netanyahu has ruled out as a coalition partner or backer.

Should all three of these parties fail to make it, several hundred thousand non-Netanyahu votes would go to waste — a huge, potentially election-determining advantage for him. (Some 4.6 million votes were cast in last year’s election.)

All about Bibi

This election is shaping up as a referendum on long-serving PM Binyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | License details)

For a brief period 20 years ago, Israel experimented with a two-vote election. The electorate cast one vote for its preferred prime minister, and a second for its preferred party. The “reform” was swiftly abandoned because it failed to have the desired effect of strengthening the larger parties and thus stabilizing the political system.

In these elections, more so even than in the past three, nonetheless, the electorate is essentially voting for its preferred prime minister — or more accurately, choosing between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps.

Ideology is more marginalized than ever before. The declared anti-Netanyahu camp, this time, includes not only the ideologically opposed center, left and Arab parties and the veteran anti-Bibi right-winger Avigdor Liberman, but also the hawkish ex-Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope, and, albeit a little more ambivalently, the firmly right-wing Bennett’s Yamina. Not incidentally, Liberman, Sa’ar and Bennett all worked very closely with Netanyahu in their previous lives — before they became Knesset members themselves — as well as serving as ministers in his governments; all are now adamant that he is bad for Israel.

Of his right-wing rivals, Liberman castigates Netanyahu principally for serial capitulations to the ultra-Orthodox parties. Sa’ar says the prime minister is skewing policy-making to serve his own interests. Bennett says he can’t be trusted and has been in the job for far too long.

The relative success of these Netanyahu opponents and their parties confirm that their criticisms have some resonance among the electorate, but Likud remains by far the largest party, and Netanyahu a far more popular choice than his rivals as prime minister.

On the left and much of the right, there is widespread disgust that Netanyahu, in these elections, has almost certainly paved the way for provocateur Itamar Ben Gvir to enter the Knesset, by brokering a merger that saw Ben Gvir’s extremist and homophobic Otzma Yehudit join forces with Smotrich under the Religious Zionism rubric. Ben Gvir is a disciple of the late rabbi Meir Kahane who kept a picture in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, perpetrator of 1994’s massacre of Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs.

There is also widespread dismay at Netanyahu’s relentless rhetorical assaults on the police and the state prosecution that have had the temerity to put him on trial for corruption, and his claim that law enforcement is attempting a political coup in league with the media and “the left” — an ever-widening catch-all for his many and varied enemies, including those who stand most emphatically on the political right.

He is a divisive figure, who alternately targets and woos the Arab electorate as best serves his needs, absolves himself of responsibility for the incendiary social media activities of his son Yair, and couldn’t even condemn recent incidents of violence by his own Likud supporters against rival New Hope candidates without undermining that condemnation by sardonically referring to Sa’ar’s party as “irrelevant.”

Netanyahu is also a deeply mistrusted figure. Benny Gantz was apparently one of the very few people in Israel who believed him when he promised to honor their rotation agreement, and even Gantz now says he has learned his lesson. Asked time and again if, were he to be reelected, he intends to try to pass legislation that would block his corruption trial, Netanyahu denies it, is not believed, and knows full well that he is not believed.

Set against all this, however, is Netanyahu the prime minister now presiding over one of the calmest security periods in Israeli history. Netanyahu who has steered Israel (most of whose youngsters are required to serve in the army) without military adventurism through 12 years of regional upheaval. Netanyahu who has assembled credible evidence of Iran’s rogue nuclear program, and strides the global stage articulately highlighting the threat posed by the ayatollahs’ regime. Netanyahu who indefinitely eschewed West Bank annexation in favor of normalized relations with the UAE, followed by three other normalization processes (with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco), with the promise of more to come.

Most Israelis keep telling the pollsters they don’t want Netanyahu to continue as prime minister — 58% in a Channel 13 poll two weeks ago; 52% of Jewish Israelis and 56% of Arab Israelis in a Channel 12 poll last week. But when asked who is their favored prime minister, he still scores significantly higher than any of his would-be successors — 37% in Channel 12’s poll Tuesday, compared to 21% for Lapid, 10% for Bennett and 9% for Sa’ar.

Israelis’ deeply conflicted views of Netanyahu saw him fail to decisively prevail in three successive elections and narrowly cling on to power. This time, more of the right has joined the battle against him. Offsetting that, however, the alliance under former IDF chief Gantz that challenged his security credentials has collapsed. And we’re voting in a mood of greater optimism than at any time since the pandemic struck.

In the fateful choice on Tuesday, with a substantial proportion of the electorate still avowedly undecided, the contrast between Lapid dismissing the possibility of vaccines by January and Netanyahu hounding Bourla to ensure Israel got millions of them is not easily ignored.

Neither is Lapid’s assertion that Netanyahu, if reelected, will defang the judiciary, further corral the media, and turn Israel into a kind of “illiberal democracy.”

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