Political Affairs: The wizard of Balfour Street

Netanyahu went from ‘oy gevalt’ to celebrating a victory in just a few hours, and he’s on the way to building a solid coalition. How did he do it once again?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, celebrate at Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv late Tuesday night, April 9, 2020 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, celebrate at Likud Party headquarters in Tel Aviv late Tuesday night, April 9, 2020
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
The mood on Tuesday evening was glum at the “Drive-In,” as the Heichal Shlomo Arena in north Tel Aviv is known, where the Likud’s end-of-elections event was held. Activists weren’t allowed in to cheer and wave their flags, and it was just hundreds of members of the local and foreign media with their cameras set up around the perimeter of the room, competing for the attention of a couple dozen Likud candidates.
The ministers, MKs and campaign officials walking from news crew to news crew expressed concern about low turnout and right-wing parties dropping below the threshold, hurting chances for a coalition.
Then, the polls closed at 10 p.m., and within minutes, major TV stations announced the results of their exit polls, and it was felt like a surge of electricity going through the arena. There was a total reversal of the atmosphere in the room, from dour and dire to excited and victorious.
Though Blue and White leader Benny Gantz gave a victory speech 700 meters away from there, the Likud officials read the results very differently. Gantz wouldn’t be able to form a coalition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would stay in office for another term.
“We’re going to form a government,” Likud MK Amir Ohana enthused to The Jerusalem Post, as music by popular Mizrahi singer Omer Adam – who reportedly voted for Shas – blared in the background.
“There are three different polls, so we can’t predict the results,” Likud MK Sharren Haskel said cautiously, not long before midnight. “But this is a huge win for the Likud. We grew from 30 mandates to 35 after three years of a huge campaign against the Likud and Prime Minister Netanyahu. It’s a huge achievement. We were able to grow the group of right-wing parties into a bigger group, which means the Likud will form the government.”
Haskel said that in the days before the election she was “quite anxious,” and that the polls she was shown pointed toward a different result.
But now, after seeing the polls, she exclaimed: “I’m thrilled!”
TWO HOURS later, long after hundreds of activists wearing “Netanyahu. Right. Strong.” shirts and waving Likud flags had filled about a third of the room – not the most impressive showing for the victors – Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, arrived, amid cheers of “Hu kosem, hu kosem” (he’s a wizard) and he gave a victory speech.
The “incredible victory” was “almost incomprehensible,” Netanyahu gushed. He thanked the public for its support and said the Sheheheyanu blessing for a momentous occasion.
“Kosem,” as Likudniks call Netanyahu after each victory, can mean a wizard or a magician, and either metaphor can work for the perennial election winner, who managed to pull a rabbit out of his hat in the nick of time, or to cast a spell on the electorate.
Now Netanyahu has 97 days left until he beats David Ben-Gurion’s record of being the longest-serving prime minister. Even if a possible indictment cuts the next government’s lifespan very short, he’s almost certain to meet that long-coveted goal.
But the political victory for Netanyahu is even bigger than just remaining prime minister. The election results are ideal for him when it comes to other parties as well.
Pending the absolute final vote results, it seems the only members of the right-wing bloc other than the Likud that grew are Shas and UTJ, his most loyal coalition partners. The Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP) got more votes thanks to Otzma Yehudit, but no member of the radical party is in the Knesset. Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu are chastened after a race in which they dropped below the threshold in polls, but managed to get into the Knesset anyway. Zehut, led by Moshe Feiglin, who would have been a major thorn in Netanyahu’s side and would not commit to supporting the Right or Left, is out. And the New Right, led by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, whom Netanyahu cannot stand, could be in either of the last two categories. And the Left has basically been destroyed, with Labor receiving a catastrophic six seats and Meretz dropping to four.
Theoretically, the fact that the other right-wing parties are smaller should leave room for more Likud MKs to become ministers, which would also make internal politics easier for Netanyahu.
However, Netanyahu needs all the right-wing and haredi parties to get 61 seats, so their conditions for entering a coalition are likely to be inflated beyond their electoral value. Yisrael Beytenu and URP are the ones to watch on this front, as far as portfolios are concerned, while Shas and UTJ will probably have more policy demands.
TO BIBI or not to Bibi, that is the question of the 2019 election, much like the 2015 one. And it’s the key to how he keeps winning big. So many people saw this as a referendum on Netanyahu that people who may have voted for a different party on the Right switched to the Likud to make sure that he stays in office, and the ideological Left was abandoned in favor of Blue and White, which had a better chance of unseating Netanyahu.
A lot of observers wonder what it is that Israelis like so much about Netanyahu that they’ve kept him in office for so long. Books can be written about that. But in very brief, it’s apparent from polling that most Israelis are right-wing, so on policy alone, Netanyahu has an advantage.
And then there’s what Israelis can feel in their everyday lives. It’s not just campaign bluster that Israel has had its safest decade perhaps ever – even if Hamas still rules over Gaza and the rockets haven’t stopped – and that the economy is booming, despite a stubbornly high cost of living and housing, and unemployment is lower than ever.
Netanyahu’s stature as an international statesman is not to be underestimated; he brings pride to Israelis when he gives speeches abroad and when leaders of major world powers meet with him repeatedly, and of course he very conveniently had meetings with US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during the campaign. Netanyahu is also far and away the most experienced of any senior politician in the country.
So yes, there are those recommendations for indictments on bribery, fraud and breach of trust hovering like a storm cloud over his head at all times. They’ve been reported on for so long and so thoroughly – Blue and White campaigned against Netanyahu specifically on the issue of corruption – that every voter had to know about them. Clearly, enough voters decided Netanyahu’s pros outweigh his cons.
Then there are the skills that make Netanyahu the Wizard of Balfour Street, where the Prime Minister’s Residence is located in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu’s political spokesman Yonatan Urich testified to his indefatigability on Army Radio Thursday morning: “I’m 30 years old and Netanyahu is almost 70. He wore us out on this campaign, with 4.5 hours of sleep a night. Gantz wasn’t ready for it.”
In the beginning of the campaign, Likud operatives murmured complaints that their ground game was weak. Not enough money was going to signs for people to hang from their balconies and windows.
But Netanyahu, Urich and his new media adviser Topaz Luk knew where to invest, and the campaign was almost entirely online. Between the Likud TV broadcasts from Netanyahu’s Facebook page, to a chat-bot that “talked” to potential voters, to answering questions in Instagram stories, they were innovative and experimental. Sometimes it seemed like the Likud had a new video every day; most were attacks on Blue and White, but a few were of Netanyahu showing up at supporters’ houses and playing soccer with their kids or holding their babies – he accepted requests on Instagram – and another showed the prime minister in his official residence’s kitchen, preparing what he said was the only thing he knows how to make, eggs sunny-side up, with an apron on to protect his suit.
And then there was the last-minute gift the Likud campaign received courtesy of the “leftist media,” Yediot Aharonot and The New York Times, in the form of an article claiming there is a network of Twitter accounts colluding to spread propaganda and lies to help Netanyahu. It didn’t actually say the fake Twitter accounts are bots, but, rather, that they’re run by real people, but it didn’t matter. The Likud jumped on the report, as real people called in to radio shows to say that their pro-Netanyahu remarks are all authentic.
Likudniks have experience being dehumanized by rivals, going back decades, but also in the last election, when Labor supporter and artist Yair Garbuz mocked them as superstitious and religious fanatics days before the vote. The Likud gave activists “I am a proud bot” T-shirts, as Netanyahu emphasized that the elites and the media just can’t accept that there are people who think differently than they do, but that he knows his support is real.
After that, the campaign moved into what has become known as the “gevalt” stage, named after the Yiddish exclamation of distress. In the last election, Netanyahu said “right-wing government is in danger,” and voters moved to the Likud. This time, he brought out the exact same message, even though media commentators, and even Likud officials at the Drive-In before the polls closed, thought it wouldn’t work as well a second time.
But Netanyahu really went all out with his woeful cries. He brought out his American pollster John McLaughlin to explain that low turnout was expected among right-wing voters, and that meant the Likud would fall behind Blue and White. The day before the vote and on Election Day itself, Netanyahu made videos every few hours to talk about how worried he was. He went to the beach to tell people to stop relaxing and go vote. In the hours before the polls closed, he called voters, while his efforts were broadcast live on his Facebook page.
And with that, the votes shifted. Between the final polls on Thursday and Friday and the actual vote, the Likud got five to seven more seats than expected (official results were not yet available as this was written) and the other right-wing parties – haredim exempted – shrunk.
Netanyahu went from “oy gevalt” to an “incomprehensible” victory in a matter of hours, and soon he’ll be Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. The wizard’s magic is as strong as ever.