The 2021 campaign's potential boomerangs and backfires - Analysis

There were certain moments in the campaigns – certain steps or advertising campaigns – that were meant to evoke one response, but very well may have elicited the opposite.

All parties voters can vote for at the ballot in Israel's March 23 election. (photo credit: SHLOMO BEN EZRI/CENTRAL ELECTIONS COMMITTEE)
All parties voters can vote for at the ballot in Israel's March 23 election.
The election campaign that will mercifully come to a close on Tuesday was unremarkable.
There were no issues truly debated, other than whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a saint or a scoundrel. There was no excitement. There was little fire.
There was the corona, which dominated everything – but it just forced the various campaigns to recalibrate their message. Instead of the Likud saying that Netanyahu was uniquely positioned to advance Israel diplomatically – “a league above the rest” – they said he was uniquely positioned to procure the corona vaccine.
And instead of the anti-Netanyahu forces saying that Netanyahu’s thirst for a coalition to give him immunity from his trial was coloring his decisions on issues of war and peace, they were saying that his personal considerations and legal woes were coloring his decisions regarding dealing with COVID-19.
This election was more of the same old, same old: same candidates spewing the same messages we’ve all grown accustomed to.
But there were certain moments in the campaigns – certain steps or advertising campaigns – that were meant to evoke one response, but very well may have elicited the opposite.
Here’s a look at four of election campaign 2021’s boomerang moments.
The first three weeks of February were very bad for Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party. In six of 19 major polls taken in the first 20 days of the month, the Blue and White Party – which won 33 seats in the previous election – was not passing the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to get into the Knesset. Gantz, holding the title of alternate prime minister, seemed to be rapidly losing elevation.
And then, on February 21, a group of 130 former officers and security heads – led by former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak, former Mossad head Danny Yatom and former chief of staff Dan Halutz, took out a full-page advertisement in the country’s newspapers calling on Gantz to step down.
“Benny, enough,” they declared, saying that if he did not drop out of the race, then the votes for his party would go to waste as it was unlikely to make it past the electoral threshold. Gantz, incensed by the advertisement, said those who signed it “shot him in the back.”
But rather than accusing those who signed the letter of abandoning him and shooting him in the back, Gantz should have sent them a bouquet of flowers. Because in every major poll since that letter, Gantz passes the electoral threshold, polling consecutively at between four to five seats.
What happened? Barak and fellow security experts have written open letters in the past, including in support of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and in favor of the Iranian nuclear deal. Barak has also warned that Netanyahu was leading Israel into a diplomatic tsunami. Reality, in each of those cases, turned out significantly different. One senior political journalist wrote that if the list of officers that signed that letter said X, then Y would probably happen. It has proven true this time, at least in the polls for Gantz. Once they called on Gantz to stop, Blue and White’s numbers started to rise.
Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party has had a fascinating trajectory. It entered the Knesset in 1999 with four seats, seen as a niche party representing the Russian-speaking immigrants.
Benefiting from the huge influx of immigrants in the 1990s, the party grew to 11 seats in 2006 and 15 in 2009, with Liberman at one time talking of himself as a future prime minister.
But then the party’s political fortunes began to fade, dropping to only six seats in the 2015 elections and five seats in the April 2019 election.
It is then that Liberman – known until that time primarily for his far-right anti-Arab rhetoric and positions – shifted gears to stridently anti-haredi rhetoric. With his natural voting base – elderly Russian immigrants – dying out, and the new generation of Russian speakers no longer in need of an immigrant party, he badly needed a new niche. He found it in the segment of the population angry and frustrated over haredi control over religious life in the country, the refusal of haredim to go en masse into the army and perceived “religious coercion.”
Liberman targeted the anti-haredi vote and it worked, with his party winning eight seats in the September 2019 election, though it then dropped to seven last year.
And then corona hit, and latent anti-haredi feelings burst forth with a passion as segments of the haredi population openly flouted the corona regulations. The atmosphere was perfect for an anti-haredi campaign, and Liberman went at it full force, culminating in his comment last week that Netanyahu and the haredim should be carted out in a wheelbarrow to the trash heap.
Interestingly, however, this campaign is not helping Liberman’s party that much in the polls. An average of the last 10 major polls since March 15 has him winning 7.2 seats, no better than he did the last time around.
And while Liberman’s anti-haredi campaign is not giving him a significant lift in the polls, it very well may boost his nemesis: the haredi parties. With many haredim angered at the community’s political leadership for its behavior during the crisis, and with talk that some in this generally very disciplined voting bloc may either stay home or vote for the ultra-conservative Religious Zionist party, Liberman’s attacks is likely to incentivize more haredim to come out and vote.
Liberman’s attacks – aimed at burying the haredi parties – may actually end up strengthening them.
A crowd of tens of thousands of people – organizers put the number at 50,000, while the police estimated about half of that – gathered yet again Saturday night around the corner from the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Road in Jerusalem.
For the 39th consecutive week – regardless of the weather, or the country’s coronavirus rate of infection – an alliance of groups with names like Crime Minister and the Black Flags have been demonstrating in front of the prime minister's office and at various other interchanges around the country declaring Netanyahu as corrupt, demanding that he resign, and determining that they are the true guardians of Israeli democracy.
The demonstrations were often put down with force by the police, and demonstrators at times faced angry and even violent reactions from those opposed to their message. On Saturday night, various leaders of the campaign would not say what would happen if Netanyahu wins the election and is able to form a coalition of 61.
Will they continue to protest if the country speaks on Tuesday and says it wants Netanyahu to remain at the helm?
These demonstrations over the last months provided powerful optics and created an atmosphere that one can argue contributed to the eventual collapse of the government. It is not immediately clear, however, what effect these protests – especially the large one on Saturday night – will have on the voters.
Those attending the protests who agree with the message that Netanyahu is a crook who must be removed at all cost are highly motivated to go out and vote, and will surely do so.
Paradoxically however, they may also have motivated apathetic Likud voters who might actually have decided to stay home on Tuesday, except that they were put-off by the cacophony of the protests and will vote if only to demonstrate that a prime minister is removed at the ballot box, not by weekly protests.
It’s not enough for Netanyahu to have projected himself over the years as a maven of diplomacy, he wants the people to feel it, taste it and internalize it.
That explains why the US recognition of the Golan Heights took place two weeks before the first election in this cycle in April 2019, why he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi days before the second election, and why he went to Washington to receive then-president Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” just before the election last year.
But this year, without Trump able to give him diplomatic gifts, and with Putin not delivering something sufficiently dramatic (there was early talk that came to naught of the discovery of Eli Cohen’s burial place in Syria and the return of his remains), Netanyahu sought a high-profile visit to the United Arab Emirates in the waning days of the campaign.
Such a visit would have highlighted the Abraham Accords – Israel’s freshly minted agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco – which to the Likud’s chagrin have not made a dent in this campaign. Had corona not monopolized the country’s bandwidth over the last year, these accords – and Netanyahu’s role in securing them – would likely have played a more prominent role in the campaign.
So Netanyahu tried to go to the UAE. The effort backfired, however, as Jordan would not let his plane pass a week and a half ago; the Emirates made it known last week that they were not interested in meddling in the Israeli campaign; and that hosting some kind of summit between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Netanyahu and senior US government officials would constitute such meddling.
As a result, no visit took place. Instead, some of the shine was taken off Netanyahu’s image as Mr. Diplomacy. Netanyahu procured COVID-19 vaccines, and that should have been enough for the campaign. But instead, the campaign reached for more. As the Talmudic dictum goes, “Try to grab too much, and you will end up with nothing.”