Election tactics: Lapid projects victory, Netanyahu defeat - here's why

As this bitter and ugly election campaign has proven once again, Israel’s political scene is a jungle.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yair Lapid
On Thursday morning, just five days before the elections, the starkly opposing campaign strategies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Blue and White challengers Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid were on full display in back-to-back interviews on KAN Bet Radio.
First Lapid got on the talk show with Yaron Dekel and Amit Segal and boasted that the polls are shining on his party, and that coming down the stretch, Blue and White is leading by a nose.
The subtext of his message is that there is a sense of inevitability in the party’s victory, that after 13 years of Netanyahu the country was signaling that enough is enough, and that those on the Center and the Left debating internally whether to vote Blue and White, or for Labor-Gesher or the Democratic Union, should just stop all the silliness and place their money on a winner.
This tactic is classic: Exude confidence and hope it becomes contagious.
Then Netanyahu got on the air, and took the completely opposite approach. We are losing, he said. There is no guarantee that he will be returned to power. Asked at the end of the interview if the next term would be his last, he chuckled and said that the next term was not in his pocket.
“The good news for the media and bad news for me,” Netanyahu said, “is that according to all the polls that you show – I am not making them up or fabricating them – at this point we are going to lose.” He volunteered that this was also what his own internal polls indicated.
This tactic is also classic: Say the ship is capsizing, hoping people come out en masse to ensure it remains upright.
Lapid projected certain victory; Netanyahu certain defeat.
And it was not only what Netanyahu said on the radio that projected a sense of defeat. His “dramatic” announcements day after day in the final week of the campaign also did not signal a man confident of victory.
His first announcement came on Monday, when – in a hastily organized appearance before the press – he “revealed” to the public a hitherto unknown Iranian nuclear weapons development site south of Isfahan. This was not Netanyahu’s finest dramatic moment.
When the prime minister wants to create drama over Iran, he knows how to do it. He did it in the UN in 2012 by holding up a cartoon caricature of a bomb to illustrate Israel’s redlines; and he did it again in 2018 when – Wizard of Oz-like – he pulled back a black curtain in the Defense Ministry to reveal folders of tens of thousands of secret Iranian nuclear files that the Mossad spirited out of Tehran. His staff spent weeks – not just a couple hours – carefully choreographing and scripting that event.
But on Monday there was no magic in Netanyahu’s performance. He gave a statement of just over three minutes in Hebrew, which he then translated into English, to reveal the existence of the new site, showed a couple of slides of before-and-after satellite images, and exited stage left.
This appearance left an aftertaste not of a dramatic revelation, but, rather, of a politician looking for the drama he was able to create before the last elections – when just three weeks before the voting he got the US president to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the Russian president to help secure the long-sought remains of IDF Sgt. Zachary Baumel – but has been unable to duplicate this time around.
“This is all you got?” Netanyahu’s critics chirped and tweeted afterward. “Where’s the beef?”
Then, at about noon on Tuesday, it transpired that this was not all that Netanyahu had. Again messages went out to the press that the prime minister had a “dramatic” announcement. Again the master agenda-setter set the agenda, with the media – despite trying real hard not to – speculating for hours about what he would say.
And then the announcement came, an hour late, but it came. If all the political stars align just right, Netanyahu said, and if he is voted back into office, he will annex the Jordan Valley and then hope to move on to extend Israeli law to other settlements as well.
Here, too, his critics yawned and said, “There’s no there there.”
“It’s political,” Gantz said. “If he meant it, he could have done it anytime over the last 13 years,” Lapid intoned. “It’s election spin,” Ehud Barak hollered, as the prime minister’s opponents labored hard to create the impression that Netanyahu was grasping at straws, looking for something, anything, to salvage these elections; trying to woo voters to the right of the Likud so that his party wins the election outright – wins more seats than Gantz and Lapid – so that the president will have little choice but to give him the first shot at forming the next government.
Tucked into that speech on the Jordan Valley was a sentence that went largely unnoticed, but also indicated a shift in strategy, if not a degree of desperation.
After announcing that US President Donald Trump will finally roll out his long-anticipated peace blueprint days after the elections, Netanyahu said, “Citizens of Israel, I believe that democracy necessitates that I present to you before the elections, and not after them, what I intend to do if you elect me, and therefore, as it is clear that the Trump plan will apparently come to us very quickly, in the very near future, I ask for a clear mandate from you to extend Israeli sovereignty over all the settlements.”
Say what? Since when?
Up until now, Netanyahu successfully lobbied the Trump administration to delay the release of the plan until after the elections – first in April, and now again in September – so that if it includes Israeli concessions, it would not hurt him at the ballot box or make it more complicated for him to form a government.
But now, all of a sudden, Netanyahu declares that it is the citizens’ right to know what he intends to do regarding the Trump plan before the election? Before April’s voting, Lapid unsuccessfully lobbied the US to release the plan before the voting, so that it would be the central issue in the elections and people could vote on it. Then Netanyahu was opposed. But now he wants the annexation issue to be what the country is voting on? What gives?
What gives is that the prime minister is either genuinely at wits’ end regarding how to pull this election out of the bag, or – the brilliant political tactician that he is – that is the impression he wants to create.
AS THIS bitter and ugly election campaign has proven once again, Israel’s political scene is a jungle. One manages to survive at the top for as long as Netanyahu has – 13 years, 184 days and counting – and win as many elections as he has (five), by knowing exactly what he is doing politically. His rhetoric may at times be jarring, his doomsday tactics even predictable, but – better than anyone else out there – he understands what pushes the buttons of his supporters, or his possible supporters, and he pushes them.
Channel 12’s commentator Amnon Abramovitch is – and this is an understatement – not a big Netanyahu fan. In an otherwise snarky segment on the prime minister this week, he pointed out something well worth noting: Over the last two elections, the Likud has done much better at the ballot box than it has in the final preelection polls.
For instance, the last polls taken on the Friday before the April elections showed the Likud winning – according to an average of four of the top surveys – 28 seats; the party ended up winning 35. (Those same polls also underestimated the strength of Blue and White, giving that party 29 seats, when in actuality it won 35 as well.)
And in the 2015 election, an average of four top polls showed the Likud wining only 21 seats. It ended up winning 30.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why it doesn’t hurt Netanyahu to go to the elections on Tuesday trailing Blue and White in the polls, or looking to be desperate.
Lapid takes to the airwaves five days before the elections and boasts of flattering polls, while Netanyahu goes on air and highlights unflattering ones. Why? Because this is how Netanyahu motivates his base. Because by waving unflattering polls to voters of the right bloc flirting with casting their votes for other right-wing parties, Netanyahu is seeking to trigger an inner voice inside them that will say this time the house really is burning, this time the Right really is in danger of losing power, and that – despite any reservations – this is really not the time to abandon the Likud’s ship.
It’s a tactic that has proved highly successful for Netanyahu over the past two elections cycles. He is gambling it will work for him on Tuesday as well.