The night of the 2009 election, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni simultaneously delivered victory speeches to their supporters, in which they both acted as if they had won the race and would form the next government.
Livni had won 28 seats; Netanyahu 27. Live television news broadcasts aired split screens of the two speeches.
Fast-forward six years. Netanyahu has been prime minister since shortly after that night, after then-president Shimon Peres appointed him to form the government.
The March 17 election is still two months away. Nevertheless, both Netanyahu and Livni have already declared victory yet again.
This time, they were kind enough to space their victory speeches nine days apart. Netanyahu’s took place January 5 at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds; Livni’s at Kibbutz Shefayim.
While she is second behind Isaac Herzog on the combined Labor-Hatnua list, the first speech to Labor activists by Livni, the daughter of Irgun fighters – at a kibbutz no less – was clearly the event’s highlight.
Both “victory rallies” were very festive, with jingles, lists of candidates called onstage, happy party activists and rounds of applause.
There was clearly an attempt at one-upmanship: The Likud announced 30 candidates, even though the party is getting 25 at best in the polls; Labor announced 32.
In what was a total coincidence but what could have been perceived as discrimination against the American- born candidates, No. 31 on the Likud’s list was Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick, who recently survived an assassination attempt. The New York-born foreign affairs adviser of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Eytan Schwartz, is Labor’s No. 33.
Neither Glick nor Schwartz were the least bit offended.
Herzog and Livni, who are both much more worldly than the winner of the coveted third slot on their list, former Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich, displayed surprising indifference as to how they are perceived by the international community, as well as by English speakers in Israel.
They pondered what their combined list would be called in Hebrew for two months, testing it in depth, making sure it would not offend potential Arab voters – finally deciding on Hamahaneh Hatzioni, or the Zionist Camp. Several sources in Labor and Hatnua confirmed they did not give a single moment of thought to what the party would be called in English.
When told by The Jerusalem Post that a “Zionist camp” belongs in the Catskills or Poconos – and not in a ballot box – Hatnua officials asked for alternatives. Livni’s husband, advertising executive Naftali Spitzer, liked the Zionist Front; other names suggested to Hatnua officials included the Zionist Union, Zionist Alliance and Zionist Team.
“What’s wrong with the Zionist Camp?” Herzog asked the Post. When told bluntly that it was where American Jewish teens go to lose their virginity, he joked that he was glad the name would remind them of positive experiences.
Other new parties have also had challenges adapting their name to English. When Livni formed her last party, she wanted it called The Tzipi Livni Party in English, but several media outlets decided to instead call it Hatnua, and she eventually caved in.
For his party, former welfare minister Moshe Kahlon decided on the unorthodox spelling of Koolanu in English; every media outlet but Haaretz has accepted his request.
Name recognition is important to the parties; that is why the new Labor-Hatnua jingle repeats the words “Hamahaneh Hatzioni” over and over again. But even more important is a party’s agenda for the election, which each faction has been deciding.
Netanyahu chose changing the electoral system, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid picked fighting political corruption, Kahlon selected housing reforms, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman returned to his usual agenda of fighting Israeli Arabs.
By highlighting the need for electoral reform, Netanyahu provides an answer to the anger at him among the public for initiating an election so soon. Although his plan to make it nearly impossible to topple a government would only take effect after the next election, if passed, it would undoubtedly make the next coalition more stable no matter which parties join it.
Lapid is banking on political corruption being a central issue for the next two months, and the police seem to be cooperating. He cannot present himself as a new alternative like he did last time, but he can present himself and his list as the most clean.
Kahlon revealed much of his agenda in a series of interviews he gave the Hebrew press Wednesday and at a rally Thursday night. His campaign will mirror his list for Knesset: It will be dominated by socioeconomic issues and have just enough to say about security and diplomacy by his fig leaves on those issues, Maj.- Gen. (res.) Yoav Gallant and former ambassador to the US Michael Oren.
In his press conference Thursday, Liberman stayed consistent: Ready to make serious concessions to the Palestinians under certain circumstances, but being clear in his dislike of Israeli Arabs. On the one hand, he took aim at the Arabs of Umm El-Fahm but on the other, he called where he wants to send them Palestine – not the Palestinian Authority.
That agenda confuses commentators who do not know how to define him, but it is smart – because it represents the views of many undecided voters.
What about Herzog? He intends to devote equal time to socioeconomic, diplomatic and security issues, and talk about how they complete each other.
Herzog wants to position his list as the only one that has experts on all the topics. To do so, he will need to pick a respected security figure to add to its ranks in the next week or two.
He already has MK Omer Bar-Lev on security, Livni on diplomacy, economist Manuel Trajtenberg, venture capitalist Erel Margalit, and social justice protesters Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir. Herzog called Margalit to reassure him he will still be given a senior socioeconomic portfolio, despite Shaffir and Shmuli finishing ahead of him in the primary.
In his speech at Shefayim, he spoke about all those issues and said the real victory will come only when he and the rest of his candidates could start changing things on each one of them. As in the rest of his high-profile campaign speeches, he noticeably did not say the word “peace.”
Just like Herzog’s nickname Buji, which means “cute face,” peace has been removed from Labor’s lexicon by campaign strategists. The nickname is gone because it is not prime ministerial, peace has become taboo because it might scare away potential voters.
But is this really the case? What Labor and Likud members proved by electing the lists they did is that they do not have much hope of attracting votes from the other end of the political map.
The Likud and Labor once competed with each other for centrist voters. But Likud elected many hawks, and Labor many doves.
Strategists for both parties seem intent to look inside their own political blocs for undecided voters. The Likud will try to rob its satellite parties on the Right, especially Yisrael Beytenu and Shas; Labor will pilfer votes from Meretz and Yesh Atid.
Livni will play a central role in these efforts. She already tried to appeal to those voters when in her Shefayim speech she said she sensed that for many Israelis, her bond with Herzog had already succeeded in changing desperation into hope.
Her associates denied a report that the balloons which came down after her speech were mistakenly released before it was done.
But some of her message of victory was undeniably premature at this stage.
For Netanyahu and his competition, two months of hard work on the campaign trail still await.