Likud is going for 41 or bust - analysis

Netanyahu’s strategy has shifted from growing the right-wing bloc to calling for “a big Likud,” but will that leave him with coalition partners?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, February 28th, 2019 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, February 28th, 2019
The Likud’s campaign launch event Monday night – which was really just a 45-minute speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – mostly consisted of messages that we’ve heard repeatedly in recent weeks, but there was a slight shift.
It’s not just the caveman-patois of “Netanyahu. Strong. Right,” while Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is “Left. Weak,” as Likud campaign videos say. And it’s not just the rhyming “Bibi or Tibi,” referring to one of the best-known Arab members of the Knesset, Ahmed Tibi.
Now, it’s about actively trying to get a bigger slice of the right-wing pie – even if it kills some of Likud’s potential coalition partners. Netanyahu referred to the 41 members of the party’s team for the upcoming election, and we can take that to be his target for seats for the party in the next Knesset.
“Whoever moves his support to someone else is voting for [Blue and White leaders Yair] Lapid and Gantz, is bringing the Left to power,” Netanyahu warned, a reference to votes for other right-wing parties.
“Only a big Likud will prevent a left-wing government,” the t-shirts distributed at Monday’s event said.
Or as Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel said on Monday: “Don’t vote for [New Right leader Naftali] Bennett or [Union of Right-Wing Parties candidate Itamar] Ben-Gvir.”
Netanyahu was very focused on saving the right-wing bloc a few weeks ago, actively pushing for Otzma Yehudit to join Bayit Yehudi and National Union to form the URP, for example, in addition to other failed attempts to push party mergers.
There’s a logic behind working to strengthen the bloc that will recommend Netanyahu as prime minister when they see the president right after the elections. In 2009, Likud had one less seat than Kadima, but more recommendations, bringing Netanyahu back to power.
But since Blue and White – made up of the Israel Resilience Party and Yesh Atid – took the merger idea to heart, Netanyahu and Likud have come to the realization that they need to switch strategies.
Every poll so far has shown that Netanyahu would have an easier path to forming a coalition than Blue and White Party, but in several of the most recent polls, Blue and White led by a significant margin in number of seats.
“If we get 29 seats and Blue and White has 36, that gives the president legitimacy to task Gantz with forming the government,” a Likud campaign official explained.
However, that still leaves Likud in danger. It’s true that the right is significantly larger than the center-left – excluding Arab parties, because they have historically refused to join any coalition – but in a pair of polls over the weekend, that still was not enough to form a right-wing majority, because of parties dropping below the 3.25% electoral threshold.
In the last election, a key part of the Likud campaign was encouraging right-wing voters to choose them, for fear that the competing left-wing list at the time, Zionist Union, would be larger and form the coalition. This resulted in a Likud with 30 seats and a Zionist Union with 24, and a right-wing coalition.
Now, with polls showing Yisrael Beytenu, Kulanu and either the URP or New Right hovering dangerously close to the threshold – and at times below it, in Yisrael Beytenu’s case – a big-Likud strategy could make it very difficult for Netanyahu to form a coalition without Gantz.
Netanyahu is leading the campaign with a relatively small staff for such a large, central party. He conferred with top Likud candidates about the campaign for the first time this week, and this conundrum came up in more than one way. One example of this is that the party considered investing less than usual in a Russian-language campaign, in order not to push Yisrael Beytenu below the threshold.
But now the Likud brain trust has decided they’ve done enough for the bloc, it’s time to make sure their party comes out on top – or at least close enough to it to stay in power. It’s 41 or bust.