An inside look at Netanyahu’s roller-coaster, topsy-turvy week

Political Affairs: From victory to vertigo

IKUD HEADQUARTERS on Monday night, getting ready to celebrate ahead of the exit polls. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
IKUD HEADQUARTERS on Monday night, getting ready to celebrate ahead of the exit polls.
A Likud minister described this past week as feeling the ultimate high and then experiencing the ultimate low.
Not far away from the Likud minister at the Knesset, a Blue and White MK described his party’s campaign as going back to IDF basic training: Marching Left, Right, far Right, and then far Left.
The politicians both breathed a sigh of relief when they were told that vertigo is not a symptom of the coronavirus.
But it is a symptom of political whiplash from a week when three inaccurate exit polls initially predicted 60 seats in the 23rd Knesset for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties, and he ended up with only 58.
How can it be that 60 is the ultimate high, and 58 the ultimate low, if they are only two seats and some 70,000 votes apart?
First of all, since 60 was predicted from the regular polling stations, it seemed possible that the absentee ballots from IDF soldiers would raise it to 61, which would have given Netanyahu a blocking majority in the Knesset.
Secondly, there had already been quiet talks behind the scenes with MK Orly Levy-Abecassis that both sides intended to pretend did not happen if the Right did not have 60 MKs without her.
Fifty-eight is too far away from 61 to pressure individual opposition MKs to defect. There is also more complicated math: 62 minus three MKs from the extreme Balad party is a majority for Blue and White leader Benny Gantz over Netanyahu, 59 to 58.
Every newspaper in the country declared Netanyahu the victor in Tuesday’s headlines, based on the exit polls. But an analysis on the cover of that day’s Jerusalem Post added one caveat: “The last hope for Gantz could be passing a bill before a government is formed making it illegal for a prime minister to serve during his trial.”
That “anti-Bibi bill” may make Blue and White MKs quietly feel uncomfortable, but there does not appear to be anything that can stop it, legally or – thanks to Thursday afternoon’s endorsement from Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman – politically.
Forming a minority government remains extremely difficult, but the prospect – now increasing in likelihood – of President Reuven Rivlin giving Gantz the first chance to form a government looked so doubtful to anyone at Blue and White’s empty headquarters on Election Night that the party’s MKs have every right to feel relieved.
The MKs admitted that their campaign was a total failure. No one remembers a single statement Gantz made, except his gaffes, while everyone remembers the statements Netanyahu made over and over and over again.
There were fights between top campaign officials Israel Bachar, Ido Har-Tuv and Ronen Moshe and Gantz adviser Ronen Tzur. Bachar, the main strategist of the campaign, said to go Right and to focus on social affairs. Tzur pushed for a negative campaign, and MK Yair Lapid, who oversaw past campaigns, was completely sidelined this time.
All along, neither Gantz nor any of his advisers could answer the main question Netanyahu put forward ad nauseam: How can Gantz form a government without the Joint List and its faction chairman, whom half the country loves to hate, MK Ahmad Tibi?
NETANYAHU’S DECISION to summarize the campaign as “Bibi or Tibi” came after in-depth polling by veteran Israeli pollster Rafi Smith, assisted by US President Donald Trump’s pollster John McLaughlin. When McLaughlin got too busy, the polls were assisted by another Trump pollster, Tony Fabrizio, who was questioned by Robert Mueller’s special counsel team about polling data shared with pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin officials.
The goal was to make every voter see Tibi when they looked at Gantz, people who worked behind the scenes on the Likud campaign said. The numbers Netanyahu totaled on a whiteboard at all of his events proved that Gantz could not form a government without Tibi, even though Netanyahu neglected to say that he never had the numbers to build a coalition of his own.
The Likud’s campaign was chaired by Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who ran Netanyahu’s successful leadership campaign against challenger Gideon Sa’ar. The strategy in that campaign was to have Netanyahu meet as many Likud members as possible in the 10-day race.
Translating that strategy to a national election with 6,394,030 million eligible voters was no simple feat. The Likud, unlike other parties, had no database of potential supporters.
The party did have an infrastructure of branches, party activists and MKs, none of which had been utilized in the past two elections.
Katz described his strategy as “Wake up the Likud and use it to win over the country.”
To that end, the Likud obtained data from the September race at polling stations with low turnouts in Likud strongholds. The “elector” app made news when data about voters was inadvertently leaked, but there were other, lesser-known apps that the Likud utilized that were equally effective.
Katz created the model of using the Likud’s million voters from September to bring what Netanyahu repeatedly said would be 300,000 Likud voters who stayed home in that race. That strategy was proven effective, with some 235,554 more Likud votes in this election, pending the counting of the final 15,000 votes.
Volunteers from among the million went door-to-door to reach out to the 300,000. Netanyahu himself called people to motivate them to vote. The goal was to weaponize the party’s base and involve it in a scavenger hunt for more voters.
“The Likud had been dormant, because we had been relying too much on social media.” Katz said. “Even though I had NIS 60 million less than last time, I woke up the party and used its voters as a weapon to bring out more voters this time.”
Money was saved by not going after Liberman’s voters, where too much of the Likud’s funds went ahead of the September election. Katz advised Netanyahu to ignore Liberman. Ethiopian-born candidate Gadi Yevarkan boasted that he won three seats himself, but Katz and other Likud officials expressed their doubts about that.
The indictments of Netanyahu only motivated Likud voters more, Katz said, because they saw them as targeting their political camp. Internal Likud polls found that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s involvement in the Harpaz Affair with future Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi made the Likud base see Netanyahu’s charges as a coup attempt.
Katz appointed Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev to organize two or three rallies a day for Netanyahu all over the country, starting immediately after he returned from his trips abroad to Washington, Moscow and Uganda.
The unveiling of Trump’s Middle East peace plan, Katz said, was effective in emphasizing the urgency of keeping Netanyahu in power, unlike the September race, when all Netanyahu announced was a promise about annexing the Jordan Valley with nothing to back it up.
But others involved behind the scenes in the Likud campaign said the party’s internal polling data revealed that Trump’s peace plan did not affect voters, because Gantz also endorsed the plan, and Netanyahu’s diplomatic capabilities were already known.
Only in the last 10 days of the campaign did Netanyahu turn the heat on Gantz and make the public question his mental stability and well-being, using the many examples of gaffes throughout the three campaigns.
The final tool that proved effective, according to those involved in the Likud campaign, was to use polls indicating that the Right was approaching 60 MKs the weekend before the election to woo “stability voters” who voted strategically in an attempt to end the political stalemate.
Those voters might have voted for Blue and White for the third time, were it not for polls indicating that Netanyahu had the best chance of forming a government and preventing a fourth election.
All those maneuvers were successful in helping the Likud beat Blue and White by three seats and some 130,000 voters. But they might have fallen just short of enabling Netanyahu to build a coalition.
Attention will shift next week to the President’s Residence, and there will undoubtedly be more political drama ahead.
But it will be tough to beat this week’s roller-coaster ride from victory for Netanyahu to political vertigo.•