COVID and Netanyahu will change how Israelis vote in this election

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: One result of the rapidity with which we return to the polls is the strong sense among many that “here we go again, it’s all the same.

A DAY AFTER the general election on March 4. Will it be different this time? (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
A DAY AFTER the general election on March 4. Will it be different this time?
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Since the end of World War II, Italy has become a byword for political instability, having had some 69 different governments in the intervening 75 years. That is one swiftly revolving government door.
Israel, by comparison, is a veritable island of stability, having had “only” 35 governments since its establishment in 1948. But is Italy – a country that the Economist Intelligence Unit labeled a “flawed democracy” in its 2019 Democracy Index – the state Israel really wants to be compared to in terms of governance?
Probably not. In that same 75-year period, the US has had 13 different presidents (Joe Biden will be the 14th), France has had 13 different governments, Spain, 23; Germany, 26; and the UK 28.
According to an Israel Democracy Institute graphic put out this week as Israel hurtled toward yet another election, Israel has gone to national elections 11 times since 1996 – an average of once every 2.3 years – more than any other liberal parliamentary democracy.
Greece follows Israel on that graphic, with elections every 2.5 years, followed by Spain and Japan, which have gone to elections over the last 24 years once every three years. And Italy, that “flawed democracy”? Once every 4.4 years.
One result of the rapidity with which we return to the polls – especially now, going on our fourth election in just two years – is the strong sense among many that “here we go again, it’s all the same.”
Although this feeling is understandable, there are some factors that will come into play in the upcoming campaign that did not exist in the previous three and which may render this election – and its outcome – different this time around.
Attacking Netanyahu from the Right
When Gideon Sa’ar shocked the nation two weeks ago by leaving the Likud and starting his own party, he reshuffled the political deck and ushered in a new era in Israeli politics: he legitimized attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the Right.
Granted, Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman has been sniping at Netanyahu from the Right since he left Netanyahu’s bloc following the March 2019 elections, but his voice and criticism did not create much of an echo.
But when Sa’ar stood up before the nation and declared that “the imperative of the hour is the replacement of Netanyahu’s rule, which is the longest in the country’s history,” that set a new marker.
Ze’ev Elkin, a key Likud strategist and close confidant of Netanyahu, picked up that theme and ran with it in his own blistering speech on Wednesday night, which was an extremely harsh indictment of the prime minister from a man whom the public widely believed was a staunch Netanyahu loyalist and advocate.
“Personal considerations mix in with national ones, and increasingly overcome them,” said Elkin of Netanyahu’s decision-making. “Mr. Prime Minister, you destroyed the Likud and brought in an atmosphere of a personality cult, sycophancy, fear and a Byzantine court. You tore apart the democracy inside the Likud. People are afraid of you.”
And his speech followed by mere minutes a speech by Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, who in the previous campaigns was careful not to attack Netanyahu or say that the goal was to remove him. No more. Bennett, who declared his candidacy for prime minister, slammed Netanyahu for what he said were failures in dealing with COVID-19.
“The time has come for a change,” he said. “Netanyahu has much to his credit, but in the moment of truth, the time when we needed him the most, he simply was not there.”
It was relatively easy in the past for Netanyahu to dismiss as mere whining from the Left, or from those linking up with the Left (Liberman), the charge that his decisions are based on what will help extricate him from his legal woes, more than on what is good for the nation.
But thanks to Sa’ar, Elkin and Bennett, it will be much more difficult for Netanyahu to do that this time around. In this campaign, attacks on Netanyahu will come loudly from his Right, giving them a degree of credence they may have lacked during the three previous elections.
The Abraham Accords
In normal times, the recent normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco might have been a decisive factor in getting people to vote for Netanyahu.
This time, however, those achievements are likely to be overshadowed by the coronavirus. Moreover, they might not generate as much of an election bounce as one might have expected, because many will lay these accomplishments less at the feet of Netanyahu, and more at the doorstep of US President Donald Trump and White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, who brokered the deal and were willing to have the US sweeten up the “peace pot” with F-35s to UAE, and recognition of Morocco’s control over the Western Sahara.
Which does not mean that the accords will not have an influence on voting. They will, but in a more indirect and unexpected manner, such as impacting on Arab voter turnout.
One of the recurring themes in poll after poll is the expected drop of the Joint List from 15 to 11 seats, a difference that could have significant impact on the overall political map.
And while much of the media focus on this drop has been on the split between the Ram faction and the rest of the party and the former’s willingness to work together with Netanyahu, there is another key factor: lower Arab turnout. Recent polling shows that between 80,000 and 100,000 fewer Arabs intend to vote in the next election, and one of the explanations given for this is a feeling that the party is not adequately representing the interests of the Arab public.
If you listen to the party leaders, it is easy to walk away with the impression that the main issue on the mind of Arab-Israelis is the Palestinian one. A Tel Aviv University poll earlier this month, however, showed the opposite is true, and that only 2.7% of Arab-Israelis believe this is the most burning issue.
Moreover, fully 62% of Arab-Israelis in that poll said they support the Abraham Accords, a position at odds with the position of the Joint List, which actually voted against peace with the UAE and Bahrain.
That type of disparity between how the party votes and what its constituents believe is likely to drive down Arab voter turnout, and the fewer Arabs who vote, the fewer seats the Joint List will have – something that could have a huge impact on the future coalition math.
Coronavirus
When Israel went to the ballot box on March 2, the coronavirus had been on our shores for only 10 days. Lockdowns, capsules, and the Zoom mega-boom were all things of the future. Coronavirus played no part in the past three elections.
This time it will have a starring role, and not only because it will be an endless point of debate, with Netanyahu saying that Israel, vaccinating now at a faster rate than any other country in the world, will emerge first from the crisis because of the sagacious decisions he made, and all of the other parties – except for Shas and United Torah Judaism – saying that his handling of the crisis was an abysmal failure.
It will emerge as an issue because tens of thousands of people who did not have to worry about their financial stability over the last elections do have to worry about it this time – something likely to impact their vote.
And it will also impact the election on a logistical level. One of the reasons Netanyahu beat Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party by three seats in the last election was that his primary contest with Sa’ar a few months earlier compelled him to get out from behind his computer and to go out and meet the people.
He did, and it worked. Netanyahu is a master campaigner, and his ability to fire up his base by appearing at rallies before them is unparalleled. But this time, because of corona, and because social distancing restrictions are expected to be in place at least until the end of March, this type of campaigning will be severely restricted. In other words, a key tool in his campaign toolbox simply won’t be there.

The new Israeli fault line
Even though each of the previous three elections were essentially a referendum on Netanyahu, the classic Left-Right arguments over the Palestinian issue and the settlements did play some role in them, especially the question of whether to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. People were still speaking in terms of Right and Left blocs.
With the advent of the Abraham Accords, and the election of Biden, the sovereignty question pretty much has been removed from the agenda.
In addition, the reference point for membership in a bloc is no longer where a party stands on the issue of Judea and Samaria, but, rather, whether a party believes Netanyahu is being unfairly hounded, or has subordinated the interests of the state to his own. Poll results are now being interpreted less in terms of how many seats are in the Left’s camp versus the Right’s camp, and more in terms of how many in the “pro-Bibi” and “anti-Bibi” camps.
The reason is simple: the traditional Left-Right breakdown just does not work right now. For instance, where to classify Liberman – a man with decidedly hawkish positions on the Palestinian issue, but who is firmly in the “anti-Bibi” camp. Same now with Sa’ar. Here is a man who is to the Right of Netanyahu when it comes to Judea and Samaria, but who has said that he will not sit in a government with Netanyahu.
This does not mean that the Right-Left divisions have ceased to exist, but, rather, that the split over Netanyahu is so great that it has temporarily sidelined them, with Netanyahu himself becoming the country’s main fault line.
Both Netanyahu as an issue and COVID-19 have pushed the security and diplomatic issues that traditionally determine how people vote in this country off the table. Whether that will remain the case until March 23, however, depends to a large degree on whether outside actors – such as Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – remain relatively quiet or take actions prompting an Israeli response, which could significantly alter what these elections will be about.