Israel Elections: What went right, what went wrong in the campaign?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Ahead of the last leg of the election, veteran strategists look back at where the parties have succeeded and failed.

CAMPAIGN POSTERS for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, New Hope Leader Gideon Sa’ar and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman are dotting the country as the March 23 election nears. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90/MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
CAMPAIGN POSTERS for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, New Hope Leader Gideon Sa’ar and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman are dotting the country as the March 23 election nears.
 Prime ministerial candidate Gideon Sa’ar was welcomed on Wednesday in Druze villages and then at a rally in Hadera like a winner about to ascend to the throne and replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Ooh ah, look who is coming, the next prime minister!” the crowd in Hadera chanted.
Their reaction was a sharp contrast to what poll numbers have been saying about Sa’ar. A survey taken by respected pollster Camil Fuchs that was broadcast on Channel 13 the night before forecasted only nine seats for New Hope, far from the 21 predicted for the party when the election began.
Inside New Hope, candidates have quietly begun grumbling about the campaign, whose strategy has been led by Sa’ar’s close friend, Tal Zilberstein. Even Sa’ar’s No. 2, MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, admitted he cannot become prime minister with only nine seats.
Candidates often feel a contrast between what they experience in the field – the shetah in Hebrew – and what the polls say. Sa’ar is not the first politician to believe the shetah is right and the surveys are incorrect. 
“The polls are wrong, because Likudniks deliberately lie to the pollsters,” a source close to Sa’ar said. “The Likudniks are ashamed to admit that they no longer back Netanyahu.” 
But a group of veteran strategists who are not working in the current election said it is time for Sa’ar to realize that it is his strategy that has been wrong, before it is too late.
The strategists said it is Sa’ar’s talk of becoming prime minister and being the only one who can form a government that is turning voters off. They said it is enough to speak modestly about providing an alternative to Netanyahu.
Sa’ar’s attacks on fellow prime ministerial challenger Naftali Bennett have also not been taken well, said the strategists, who were confused why Netanyahu has not been Sa’ar’s main target.
Nevertheless, asked what the Sa’ar campaign’s strategy would be between now and the March 23 election, a campaign official said the focus would remain on Bennett.
“We offered him a cease-fire, and he did not abide by it for a minute,” she said. “We will continue until people realize that Bennett will go with Netanyahu and therefore they must vote for us.” 
WHILE NEW HOPE has fallen the most, it is not the only party that has dropped in the polls since the election began.
A Panels Research poll taken for The Jerusalem Post by Menachem Lazar on December 24, immediately after the election was initiated, predicted 26 seats for the Likud, 21 for New Hope, 15 for Yamina, 14 for Yesh Atid, 11 for the Joint List, eight for Shas, seven each for United Torah Judaism, Yisrael Beytenu and Meretz, four mandates for Blue and White and none for Labor.
The latest survey by the same pollster on Monday gave the Likud 28 mandates, Yesh Atid 20, Yamina 12, New Hope 11, Joint List, Yisrael Beytenu and Shas eight, United Torah Judaism and Labor six and Blue and White five. The Religious Zionist Party and Meretz were predicted to win four seats, barely crossing the 3.25% electoral threshold. 
Meretz’s fall from a comfortable seven seats to the cusp of survival at four was attributed to the election of Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli and her left-leaning list, as well as controversial statements by Meretz candidates, led by party leader Nitzan Horowitz, who spoke out in favor of judging Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. 
In order to return those voters, Meretz will embark on a new campaign on Saturday night that will depict Netanyahu alongside Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir and UTJ minister Ya’acov Litzman and the slogan “Without Meretz, he will have 61.”
“The goal of the campaign is to send the message that a vote for Meretz is a strategic vote to beat Netanyahu,” strategist Hillel Partok said. “In other elections, the way to stop Netanyahu was to vote for a large party. This time, helping us cross the threshold is the way to do it.”
Partok said his party’s election ads would continue to reach out to the frustrated, angry and blunt anti-Netanyahu protesters who are a key part of Meretz’s constituency. To that end, the party’s ads feature a woman saying she would get back at the establishment by “f***ing voting Meretz.” The ads air uncensored.
“These are people who say the current situation is bad for us, and they want to express it,” Partok said. “They speak from the gut, so we keep our language authentic.”
The veteran strategists noted that Meretz voters are the least likely to watch election ads and warned that going to extremes could turn off their elderly voters and plunge the 29-year-old party below the threshold.
The strategists had only positive things to say about Yesh Atid, which has been consistently going up in the polls since the election began. They said party leader Yair Lapid was smart to not let himself get dragged into a fight with Netanyahu.
They said his decision to not say he is running for prime minister has made him look more statesmanlike and helped keep Yesh Atid’s partners in its political bloc above the threshold.
“We’re not focused on Lapid becoming prime minister but on making sure Litzman and Ben-Gvir don’t get to run the country,” a Yesh Atid official said. “The public isn’t interested in the egos of politicians. We’ve had a terrible year. People want the politicians to serve them.”
Lapid has been speaking to as many Israelis as possible on Zoom. His associates estimated that he had spoken to tens of thousands of people, more than any other party leader.
Netanyahu has combined talks on Zoom with actual political rallies in the field. The veteran strategists were divided on the effectiveness of his campaign.
One said Netanyahu’s focus on making Lapid his rival could be effective in plunging Blue and White and Meretz below the threshold, wasting more than 200,000 left-wing votes, and could bring right-wing voters back from New Hope and Yamina. 
Another veteran strategist said Netanyahu was wrong about right-wing voters being so scared of Lapid. He said the Likud’s positive campaigns focusing on vaccines and the economy were successful, but the party’s negative campaigns were too focused on traditional Right vs Left lines that are not relevant in this election. 
“Right and Left don’t mean much right now,” the strategist said. “It turns right-wing voters away. This explains the Likud’s underperformance.”
The strategist said Bennett was making the same mistake. He pointed out that when Bennett spoke only about the coronavirus and the economy, he had more than 20 seats in the polls, but when he “falls into Netanyahu’s trap” and speaks about being more right-wing than the prime minister, he gets less support. 
“What he should have done is take advantage of the rare occasion of there being no Right and Left, which are issues in Netanyahu’s domain,” the strategist said. “He was killing it when he was focused on corona and civil issues. But then he got sucked back into the ridiculous Right/Left fight and repeated mistakes he has made in the past.”
Sources close to Bennett said Yamina’s strategy for the end of the campaign would be to focus on the economy and deny the Likud’s campaign about Bennett helping Lapid form a government. Yamina’s slogan will be “A government that cares,” in order to contrast Bennett with Netanyahu and his Likud allies like Transportation Minister Miri Regev who are seen as too focused on themselves.
“Bibi’s on a blitz, so we have to deny what he is saying carefully and get out the message that there is no chance of Lapid forming a government,” a source close to Bennett said. “The public isn’t stupid. They know the Likud is lying with their spin on Lapid. There are 80 seats on the Right, so Netanyahu’s replacement will have to come from there.”
Bennett will not be giving TV or radio interviews ahead of the election, because they focus too much on political and not professional issues. Asked about reports that Yamina would unleash an attack on Sa’ar to finish him off politically, Bennett’s associates said there was no need.
“We won’t attack Sa’ar,” a source close to Bennett said. “His voters will continue to abandon him. He has already lost his credibility to say he is running for prime minister. Gideon is done.”