Is Israel on track to the fourth election?

In Context: The final lap... until the next one

CAMPAIGN POSTERS in Jerusalem – have we seen them before? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
CAMPAIGN POSTERS in Jerusalem – have we seen them before?
A nation frustrated with political gridlock and bored of the same tired messages it has heard during three election campaigns in just over a year will drag itself to the polls yet again on Monday.
And despite the endless complaints heard around family Shabbat dinner tables and among co-workers and in cab rides with taxi drivers, the people of Israel are expected to turn out in large numbers this time, just as they did last September and – before that – last April.
They won’t be happy, they won’t turn out enthusiastically, they will do so thinking that they very well might have to turn out for a fourth election in September – but they will vote.
Prior to last September’s election, there were predictions – supported by anecdotal evidence of people saying that they were so fed up with the situation that they would just stay home – that voter turnout would be especially low as the country held its first-ever do-over election.
The predictions were wrong. Voter turnout in September was 69.84%, nearly 1.5% higher than it was in April. The political gridlock did not lessen the country’s appetite to go to the polls; if anything, it whetted it just a bit more.
Roni Rimon, a political strategist and partner in the Rimon Cohen & Co. public relations firm, said that the polls he has taken over the last few months indicate that there is unlikely to be a drop-off in voter turnout this time either – at least unless there is another coronavirus case revealed in Israel that creates even greater panic and scares people away from wanting to go to crowded polling places.
As to the reason for what is likely to be high turnout, despite the palpable sense of disgust at the whole situation, Rimon said: “People who hate Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] believe they have to go out and vote; otherwise, he will remain in power. And those who love him believe that they need to go out and help him out.”
This does not mean that people will turn out enthusiastically or with a happy heart, but – Rimon predicted – people will turn out. The voter turnout statistics don’t register the degree of enthusiasm with which people cast their ballots, just whether they cast them.
And both the major parties are concentrating their efforts on ensuring that their faithful vote, trying to galvanize their constituents, seeing that as a path to victory.
Blue and White needs to ensure that the large turnout it had in its pockets of support the last two times around – a turnout that Rimon said was much greater than in the Likud’s bastions – remains at least what it was. And the Likud, as Netanyahu is stressing as he goes from one campaign rally to the next, is working hard to convince its voters who stayed home last time – estimated at some 300,000 – to come out en masse this time around.
It’s all about the turnout, and a large majority of Israel’s eligible voters are expected to turn out, even though they are getting voter fatigue, and even though this campaign, as Rimon characterized it, has been particularly boring.
“No one said anything new,” Rimon maintained. And the media events, such as the rollout of US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” failed to make any impact. Another “event” that failed to register was the formal court indictment of Netanyahu, the naming of the three judges who will hear his cases, and the scheduling of an initial trial date for the prime minister (March 17).
“There is no excitement,” Rimon said. “People are showing less interest.”
But the apathy and lack of interest in the campaign are unlikely to translate into a lack of interest in voting. The country remains split in two camps, with one camp locked into a movie theater watching a film portraying Netanyahu as a hero, and another camp locked into a theater next door showing a film over and over where Netanyahu is portrayed as a scoundrel.
Until this week, the doors to both theaters were shut tight, allowing in little outside noise, and no new theater-goers into either movie house. The polls, for weeks, have consistently revealed a near tie between the right and center-left blocs, with Blue and White holding a slim one to two mandate lead over the Likud.
THIS WEEK, however, the trend began to shift, with the Likud pulling ahead of Blue and White by between one to two seats in the major polls.
Camil Fuchs, the pollster for Channel 13, said in an Army Radio interview that the change in the polls indicates a trend, and that this is not something that just showed up in one poll.
“Don’t only look at one poll,” he cautioned. “Look at a number of polls.
“If you take a number of polls and see that for a long period of time Blue and White led the Likud by a number of seats, in one poll there was a three-mandates gap for Blue and White, and in the last poll there is a one-seat advantage for the Likud... it is clear that the trend that we are seeing favors the Likud,” he said.
Another pollster, Channel 12’s Mano Geva, said that the polls are also – for the first time – showing a jump from one bloc to the other, something that “has not been seen for a long time.” He said the Likud is gaining from taking not only votes from within its own bloc, but from Blue and White as well.
“We are seeing this clearly, and it is a significant change,” he maintained.
In other words, the needle that has been static for so long started to move a bit this week. It first started to move following news on February 20 that police were opening an investigation against Blue and White head Benny Gantz’s failed cyber-tech firm, the Fifth Dimension, for allegedly attaining a lucrative police tender through illicit means, and secondly due to a particularly aggressive Likud campaign.
Though Gantz has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, the news allowed the Likud to deflect Blue and White’s main campaign motif – that Netanyahu cannot lead the country, because he is standing trial for corruption – by insinuating that the head of Blue and White is anything but pure. Sensing that the moment was ripe, Netanyahu then piled on by questioning the integrity of former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, one of the party’s leaders, saying that secret tapes exist which – if revealed – would force him out of public life.
This was all accompanied by a Likud campaign derided for being particularly nasty – Netanyahu put on his Facebook page a video showing Gantz stumbling and at times stuttering and fumbling verbally, with the question being asked: “What is not right with Gantz?”
Exactly 24 minutes after Netanyahu uploaded this clip, Gantz responded with one of his own, featuring a stammering Netanyahu confusing names in some of his speeches and media appearances, under the statement: “What three indictments and the opening of a trial do to a man.”
Whether it was the aggressive Likud campaign messages, or the opening of the police investigation, the polls began to tip, and the tides turned in Netanyahu’s favor. And these polling trends also led to a tactical change by each of the large parties in the last lap before the voting, as they both realize that even if there is a near tie between the two blocs, and neither one has the necessary 61 seats to form a coalition, there is significance to which party will win the most votes and seats.
Why? Because the leader of the largest party will then be able to stake a claim – if there are negotiations for a unity government after the election – to being the one who should serve first as prime minister in any rotation agreement.
Which is why Blue and White shifted gears this week and tried to convince voters in the center-left bloc to vote for it, not Labor-Gesher-Meretz. It’s also the reason that the Likud was once again trying to siphon off votes from Yamina.
Rimon, for one, is not as pessimistic as many others who see the virtual tie between the blocs as a sign that Israel is hurtling its way toward a fourth election in September.
Even if the results of this election will be similar to those in September, Rimon said, “I think the politicians will act differently” and work to form a unity government. As to Blue and White’s pledge that it will not sit together in a unity government with Netanyahu at Likud’s helm, Rimon counsels to take those promises with a grain of salt.
In a recent poll his office carried out, Rimon said, 70% of Blue and White voters – when faced with the alternative of a fourth election or joining a coalition even with Netanyahu as the Likud head – favored the latter option. And that, as much as anything else, shows the degree to which the country’s voters are just tired of voting again, and again, and again.•