It’s been one of the longest election campaigns in Israel’s history, and also one of the numbed ones. Most Israelis preferred to spend their summer on family vacations rather than debate the endless domestic crisis that is forcing them to enter the voting booth for the fifth time in three and a half years. And for many, many weeks, the polls have been projecting another deadlocked election, with neither Benjamin Netanyahu nor Yair Lapid achieving the required 61-seat majority needed to form the next government, thus contributing to a growing sense of uncharacteristic public apathy.
Now that the November 1 election day is approaching, the balance seems to be tilting in Netanyahu’s favor. He is closer than ever to reaching his ultimate goal – a homogeneous far right and ultra-Orthodox coalition – which will loyally support him in all of his legal endeavors. This scenario is a dream for Netanyahu’s supporters, but is a nightmare for the so-called “anyone but Bibi” camp, and could possibly galvanize the race in its final stretch.
These are the three key stories that will define and design the path to the finish line and are worth following in the weeks ahead:
1. Get out and vote – in Arabic
Lapid and Netanyahu’s fate won’t be decided in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but in Kfar Kassem, Umm el-Fahm, and other Arab towns and communities. The outcome of the elections ultimately depends on the Arab voter turnout, which polls show could drop below 40%, lower than the 42.5% of the last election, in which Arab parties garnered 10 Knesset seats.
In the next Knesset, according to the latest polls, they could have even less: The Joint List split up and divided the Arab electoral map into three – Ra’am, Hadash-Ta’al and Balad – and only the first two parties are currently and narrowly passing the electoral threshold in the polls.
Balad’s declaration of independence has already tipped the scale and granted an advantage to Netanyahu, who is slowly but steadily nearing his own 61-seat threshold, according to most pollsters. The ultra-nightmare scenario of the anti-Bibi bloc is that low Arab turnout will doom not one, but two of the Arab parties which will fail to pass the threshold, thus squandering hundreds of thousands of votes for the bloc. Without a dramatic last-minute surge in voter turnout, Arab representation in the Knesset could reach another historic low – and secure a victory for the right.
This is why Netanyahu and his allies decided not to challenge or disqualify the pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist Balad at the central election’s committee vote, breaking an old-time right-wing tradition. “We have no interest in giving Balad any public attention that could accidentally help them gain support. We want the Arab street to stay asleep,” a senior Likud source explained.
Prime Minister Lapid, who also supported various initiatives against Balad in the past, also refrained from supporting the petition, fearing it could strengthen the radical party, currently polling at 1-2% of the vote, at the expense of weakening and endangering Ra’am and Hadash/Ta’al, his potential partners. At the crossroads between Netanyahu and Lapid’s narrow political interests, Balad received a stamp of legitimacy it never had before.
While Netanyahu aims to capitalize on the Arab daze and indifference, Lapid’s only chance at keeping his seat is by orchestrating a loud wake-up call, to be echoed and shared by all of the center-left camp, which dreads Netanyahu’s comeback. The incumbent’s headline support for the two-state solution at his UN General Assembly speech last week was aimed at arousing the Arab voters with a viable vision of an alternative, but words in New York are apparently not enough to generate motivation.
Jewish Arab coexistence activists and NGOs are planning to launch widespread “Get out to vote” campaigns in the final days ahead of the election, and are pressuring Lapid to fortify their efforts by keynoting a mass election rally in one of the large Arab towns. Lapid tried to keep a distance from the Arab political scene until now, dissociating himself from any future plans to cooperate with Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi – the fuel of the Likud’s negative campaign. But as the final countdown approaches, he might have to cross the line, learn a few words in Arabic, personally appeal to their voters and dive into their mess.
2. Survival, by Ayelet Shaked
The upcoming weeks will also be crucial for Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked’s lone survival crusade. Desperately seeking forgiveness from the right, Shaked dumped her partnership with Yoaz Hendel to pair up her original Jewish home party establishment, pledging her full allegiance to Netanyahu and waging on a mea culpa campaign denouncing the outgoing government as a grave mistake.
Shaked refused calls to resign from the government altogether, claiming she is the sole right-wing protector left on guard under Lapid; instead, she’s been using her post and maximizing her role as a cabinet member to trigger publicized rows and disagreements. But so far, nothing she has done has succeeded to mobilize supporters in her direction. Shaked is polling on 1-2%, far from the 3.25% survival threshold.
“Ayelet doesn’t pass.”Benjamin Netanyahu
“Ayelet doesn’t pass,” Netanyahu told Likud comrades at a party toast ahead of Rosh Hashanah. As soon as the holiday was over, he launched a direct campaign ad attack on Shaked using the same slogan. His goal, according to Likud sources, is to force her to drop out of the race, by eating up her small base of supporters and filling them with fear and doubt of votes possibly going down the drain, reliving the 2019 trauma with Naftali Bennett and the “new right.”
Shaked insists she is running till the end, adamantly rejecting reports of secret deals and offers to quit as “fake news” intended to weaken her. But now that Netanyahu removed his gloves, pressure is likely to mount; in the final stretch, she might need to negotiate an elegant way out.
3. Lapid vs Gantz, and vice versa
The latest chapter in the complex relationship between Prime Minister Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz will be unraveling in the upcoming weeks, as the two former allies are once again at loggerheads, fighting over the same electoral base.
Gantz’s attempt to revive the original “Blue and White” concept by joining forces with Gideon Sa’ar and Gadi Eizenkot was originally aimed at challenging Lapid’s leadership but hasn’t lived up to its expectations. With 11-13 seats, the National Unity party would hardly affect Yesh Atid, let alone create a three-headed race with Netanyahu.
During the final stretch, Gantz and company plan to intensify their efforts to undermine Lapid, by chanting he has no chance to form another government, while presenting an imaginary 71-seat coalition that miraculously unites Avigdor Liberman with his ultra-Orthodox enemies, under Gantz’s auspices.
Lapid, for his part, is also gearing up to nibble on Gantz’s support. Failing to unite Labor and Meretz left Lapid with limited resources for potential growth, which can endanger the small left-wing parties and thus risk his bloc altogether. The National Unity party’s base is Yesh Atid’s best hope for mobilizing more support to grow and narrow the gap from the Likud. They will try to cast doubts over Gantz’s intentions, with reminders of his failed adventure with Netanyahu, suggesting he might rejoin him again after the elections.
Lapid’s decision to highlight the Palestinian issue at the UN was also part of the same strategy, as it floated the internal ideological tensions in the Gantz-Sa’ar partnership and pushed the centrist party to the right. Until now, Lapid and Gantz, simultaneously cooperating as prime minister and defense minister, have succeeded to keep their leadership battle civic and subtle.
As the final countdown nears, their rivalry is expected to reappear, and could exacerbate even more after the elections. If they succeed in their mutual goal and prevent Netanyahu from reaching the 61 majority, the defining and dividing question will change from “Yes or No Bibi” to “Lapid or Gantz”.•