Israel Elections: Will Netanyahu's coronavirus campaign succeed?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Will the prime minister succeed in turning the lemons of the pandemic into campaign lemonade?

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu at his office on Sunday. Vaccines have been a dominant theme in Likud campaign materials and in Netanyahu’s recent interviews. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu at his office on Sunday. Vaccines have been a dominant theme in Likud campaign materials and in Netanyahu’s recent interviews.
Jerusalem was covered in a layer of snow this week for the first time in two years, but that’s not the only thing that seems to be uncharacteristically chill lately.
So far, this election seems to be leaving many people cold. Based on past elections, one may expect that, just over a month before the March 23 election, the 8 p.m. news would open with polls and news from the various campaigns. Yet, not even one evening news program in recent memory opened with a poll; politics are more often than not relegated to the second half of the hour.
There are some obvious reasons: It’s the fourth in two years, for one. Not only is the public sick of endless text messages and campaign ads popping up on their phones and computers and hoping for some political stability for a change, but candidates are exhausted, as well. The arrival of winter isn’t the only reason for politicians not to want to get out from under their duvets in the morning; they’ve had enough campaigning to last an entire political career, condensed into two years with only a nine-month hiatus in the middle.
The other clear reason for this election seeming to be in a deep freeze is the COVID-19 pandemic. Morbidity numbers, vaccination statistics and tighter or looser lockdown rules are what open the news almost every night.
Plus, the rules against gatherings have put the usual campaign events on ice. First, there was a monthlong lockdown. But even after that, there are no parlor meetings, only Zoom conferences. The endless spate of panel discussions between candidates of different parties at schools, retirement homes and community centers are no longer. Press conferences have been replaced with live videos on social media.
This creates a challenge for campaigners. Though social media has taken a more and more central role since Israeli political parties started using it seriously in the 2013 election, and campaigners have developed advanced ways of targeting voters online, in-person engagement is generally valued a powerful way of swaying votes.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was convinced of the importance of his ground game in late 2019, when he traveled around the country and delivered a resounding defeat of now-New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar in the Likud primary, but now he’s working without any in-person events.
LIKUDNIKS HAVE long nicknamed Netanyahu a “wizard,” and befitting his reputation of someone who makes political magic happen, he seems to have managed to turn the lemons of coronavirus into campaign lemonade. After all, Likud is still leading in the polls by far, with 29 seats in the most recent Channel 12 poll, as opposed to Yesh Atid’s 18 – though Netanyahu’s prospects for forming a coalition are still shaky.
A senior Likud campaign source explained that they intentionally kept quiet during the lockdown.
“Until the lockdown ended, the focus was not on campaigning at all. It was mostly about corona because the prime minister himself was working to get us through it. So the campaign was a lot slower,” he explained. “Other parties put up billboards, and we put up none; others were in the studios during the lockdown, and we weren’t. The strategy worked, because it made sense for the country.”
As such, the source argued, New Hope and Yamina steadily declined throughout the lockdown, while the Likud mostly maintained its position, and even went up a bit, until the exit strategy went up for debate.
What the campaign official didn’t say is that the leaked audio of ugly spats within the cabinet discussions of how to leave the lockdown probably didn’t help Netanyahu’s preferred image of being the steady hand keeping the country afloat in a crisis.
Meanwhile, vaccines have been a dominant theme in Likud campaign materials and in Netanyahu’s recent interviews. It beggars belief and logic to claim that the vaccine rollout is part of the Likud campaign. Even assuming extreme cynicism on the part of politicians, consider that the Knesset had not yet been dissolved when Netanyahu first negotiated with Pfizer to quickly send Israel doses, and that Netanyahu had hoped to have an election months later than it was actually called for. Yet that doesn’t mean the Likud can’t take full advantage of his success for its campaign.
Netanyahu’s telegram channel is filled with videos calling on people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But not only do they say that vaccines are important – such as one that explains that the 400,000 people over 50 who are unvaccinated or have not had coronavirus before have an 11% chance of catching it – many also give Netanyahu credit for leading Israel to be the world leader in vaccinating its population.
Netanyahu did make sure to commend the Health Ministry and Israel’s excellent health services in a Channel 12 interview, but the vaccine success has become so identified with the prime minister that there have even been grossly irresponsible social media posts from people calling not to get vaccinated, because doing so would help him remain prime minister.
Now, the campaign official said, the Likud is transitioning from lockdown messages to the economy.
But the economic recovery plan that Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz, also from the Likud, have proposed has sparked accusations of being a form of electioneering. The proposal would have the government give NIS 750 per adult, NIS 500 per child up to the fourth child, and NIS 300 from the fifth child, for families that are below the 70th percentile in wealth, plus grants for businesses depending, on their size.
Netanyahu, however, has pushed back against the accusation, comparing his economic recovery proposal to his vaccine rollout efforts, saying in interviews this week it is not part of the campaign, it is part of his job as prime minister.
Or, as the campaign official said, “it’s not just a message, it’s what he’s doing.”
As for non-corona messaging, the Likud is settling back into its comfortable position of accusing everyone who is not with Netanyahu of being left-wing.
It’s doing that with two messages. First, that voting for New Hope, led by Sa’ar, and Yamina, led by Naftali Bennett, means a government with Yesh Atid and likely Yair Lapid as prime minister, and perhaps even another rotation agreement – which has become a very unpopular concept after the last year.
They’re not wrong about Sa’ar, who has promised not to recommend Netanyahu, though, as Sa’ar often points out, Netanyahu once formed a government with Lapid, and has formed governments with Labor.
As for Bennett, he refuses to commit either way – which means that unless there is a dramatic shift in the numbers, he will likely be the kingmaker who will determine whether there will be a government led by Netanyahu or someone else.
That brings us to the Likud’s other political message, which is that only Netanyahu will form a “fully right-wing government.” Netanyahu made sure to repeat that phrase many times in his recent interviews.
Those messages were distilled into a seven-second video the Likud released on Wednesday, which says: “Bennett and Gideon don’t have a government without Lapid. Only the Likud can establish a fully, fully, fully, fully, fully, fully right-wing government without a rotation.”
In contrast with the negative message came a few videos that emphasized the message of unity, that “we’re all in this together” in the pandemic and otherwise – religious, secular, Jewish, Arab, Druze, etc. Those were released during the lockdown, when, as mentioned, the campaign felt the public would not want to hear the usual political mudslinging.
And that dovetailed with Netanyahu’s early messages toward Arab-Israelis. Netanyahu began with very public messages and speeches in Arab-majority areas, like Nazareth, and he appointed an Arab candidate, Nael Zoabi, to the party list, who he promised would become a minister to advance the Arab population.
Now, the campaign has materials in Arabic meant to target those voters, who the Likud still believes can boost them by two to three seats, especially in light of the Joint List voting against the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“The message to the Arab sector is to stop wasting votes on parties sitting on the outside, and come and have a seat at the table of power and get things done,” the campaign official said. “We also say that Netanyahu is Mr. Security and tough on crime.”
The irony here is that Netanyahu is doing more than ever to try to attract Arab votes, while working to bring Otzma Yehudit, the party inspired by Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned for running for the Knesset in 1988 due to racist incitement against Arabs, into his coalition. Otzma is running as part of the religious-Zionist bloc, with MK Bezalel Smotrich at the helm.
Netanyahu has responded to questions on the matter by saying he did what it took to ensure no right-wing votes fall below the threshold, and repeatedly saying Otzma leader Itamar Ben-Gvir will not be a minister in his government, but he will be in the coalition, like Ben-Gvir’s associate, former MK Michael Ben-Ari. However, Ben-Ari, who was an MK from 2009 to 2013, was never actually in the coalition, nor was Kahane when he was in the Knesset.
WHAT HAS noticeably been missing from the Likud campaign is, well, anyone other than Netanyahu.
Likud ministers and MKs are usually all over the place before an election. COVID-19 explains why they haven’t been appearing in as many panels or holding parlor meetings, but not why we don’t see them doing almost anything else, and some have begun to grumble about it.
“They don’t talk to us at all, or to any of the MKs.... They told the minsters to lie low,” one Likud aide said, recounting that a minister tried to meet with the heads of the Likud campaign and it took several days until a meeting could be set up.
TV bookers have been told to go directly to the campaign, and not to MKs and ministers directly as they used to, and the campaign has mostly relegated ministers who are not directly related to coronavirus response – anyone other than Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Katz or Transportation Minister Miri Regev – to less-popular viewing slots.
The campaign official argued that “the media are turning this into something that it’s not,” and that ministers are getting plenty of screen time.
“We’re being careful with message discipline and generally making sure everything is run like a tight ship,” he said.
The real issue is that, because of coronavirus, this has been a campaign like no other.
“The media are not used to the fact that it’s not a normal election. For a huge chunk of it, the country was under lockdown... and the prime minister needed to handle the lockdown and not to be bashing other candidates in the studio,” he said.