Netanyahu changes campaign stop messages for the March elections

Political Affairs: Goodbye, ‘Gevalt!’; hello, ‘We got this’

IT MUST be election season – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a baby during a campaign stop this week in Mevo’ot Yeriho. (photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
IT MUST be election season – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a baby during a campaign stop this week in Mevo’ot Yeriho.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)
As the country enters the final lap of its third election campaign in 11 months, it all seems so familiar. Same parties, same candidates, same tired arguments.
Which, according to the polls, will lead to the same results: stalemate.
Same old, same old.
It’s as if we are all trapped in that classic scene from the 1993 movie Groundhog Day where each morning Bill Murray wakes up stuck in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over and over again.
But wait. Take a closer look. There is something different this time, fundamentally different. And it is in the Likud campaign.
In the last three election campaigns – 2015 and both elections in 2019 – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu perfected the “Gevalt!” campaign. Before every microphone, he would fret that his party was on the verge of losing, and that the country’s reins were about to be usurped by the Left.
In 2015, accompanied by his toxic comment about Arabs flocking to the ballot box in droves, the tactic apparently worked, as Netanyahu defied the pre-election polling and handily beat the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog.
In April of 2019 it worked again, and in interview after interview before the balloting he bemoaned that the Likud was on the way to defeat. It wasn’t, and the right-wing bloc won a clear victory – until Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman made clear he wasn’t a member of that bloc anymore, and sent the country spiraling to a second election.
By September, however, the tactic was overused and transparent, and the opposing parties – as well as the country’s punditry – caught on and spoke endlessly about how Netanyahu always “cries wolf.”
Which, of course, did not keep the prime minister from crying wolf again. Five days before the September election, Netanyahu took to the radio and exuded a lack of confidence.
While Blue and White’s Yair Lapid, interviewed at the time on the radio just before Netanyahu, said his party was on the verge of victory, Netanyahu said his was on the brink of defeat.
Why? Why would a candidate want to show weakness just days before voting? To spur those voters to the polls who might think victory was in the bag and, as a result, either stay home or vote for a smaller party.
But in the last election it didn’t work, and Likud voters did stay home in droves. According to the party, and numbers Netanyahu repeated all week long, some 300,000 Likud voters didn’t bother to vote last time, a number that – had they voted for the Likud – would have provided the party with a comfortable margin of victory.
So how to motivate the voters this time? Don’t say you are about to lose, the Gevalt campaign; rather, say that you are about to win, and that the only thing separating the right-wing bloc from the magic number of 61 Knesset seats is some tens of thousands of votes.
This time Netanyahu’s message is not “If you stay home, I lose” but, rather, “If you come out, I win.” A subtle difference, but a difference.
“We are on the verge of a tremendous victory,” the prime minister said in an Army Radio interview on Wednesday.
Challenged by an interviewer who told Netanyahu that he remembers him saying there was “electricity in the air” at Likud events before the previous two elections as well, Netanyahu corrected him. “I said the opposite. You all said that I said ‘gevalt,’ and I did say ‘gevalt,’ it really was ‘gevalt.’ But this time I see something completely different.”
And that’s the new line in this campaign – that the Likud is within a hair’s breadth of victory, a theme that was stressed in each of the prime minister’s campaign rallies this week. And there were many such rallies: from Ma’aleh Adumim on Saturday night, to Merom Hagalil on Wednesday night, with stops along the way in Nahariya, Haifa, Beit She’an, Lod, Bat Yam, Karmiel and Ma’alot – and that is only a partial list.
With the exception of Haifa, one common denominator of the communities on that list is that they are all communities where the Likud won the last elections. And another common denominator: they are all communities – except for Ma’aleh Adumim – where voter turnout was lower than the 69.8% national level.
In some of those communities, the turnout was significantly lower than the national rate: for example, 52% in Bat Yam, 58.5% in Lod, 59% in Karmiel.
While the press is unwelcome at these rallies – my press card is what kept me out of the rally on Saturday night in Ma’aleh Adumim meant only for Likud faithful who signed up in advance – they are streamed live on Netanyahu’s Facebook page. And at every one, with surprisingly little variation, Netanyahu’s message was the same: another little push, another little kvetch, and sweet victory is ours.
THE LIKUD believes that Netanyahu himself is uniquely capable of providing that push. Judging by the prime minister’s killer schedule last week, the party’s bet – based on how effectively Netanyahu hit the stump in the Likud primary in December when he trounced Gideon Sa’ar – is that what is needed is for him to get out there and talk to the people. No more campaigning from the office via Facebook and Twitter, but, rather, campaigning the old-fashioned way – holding rallies and pumping the flesh, lots of flesh.
And few Israeli politicians do that as effectively these days as Netanyahu. At rally after rally, despite the fact that he was repeating the same stories, using the same jokes, mouthing often word for word the same lines, he looked fresh and invigorated – not like a 70-year-old man facing corruption charges in a few weeks in a Jerusalem District Court.
At each rally the drill is the same: the local mayor fires up the crowd, the Likud jingle blares, and the prime minister enters to loud cheers – energized by sporadic chants of “Bibi, king of Israel.”
He talks about his achievements over the last decade, and how the country has turned into a cyber, technology, intel, security, water and agriculture power – always ending this riff by referencing a US News & World Report survey last year that ranked Israel as the eighth most powerful country in the world.
Netanyahu is at his most effective when he gets out from behind the podium – where he stood for an abnormally long time in Ma’aleh Adumim – and, Oprah Winfrey-like, takes the microphone and walks back and forth across the stage.
“If this was a Blue and White rally, there would be a director and a teleprompter,” he said Tuesday evening in Lod, walking across the stage. “We are the Likud, we are real, we speak from the heart, we speak from the mind, we speak about the love of the Land of Israel – uncamouflaged, without cosmetics. Truth, truth, truth.”
A fan of props, who has used them famously at speeches to the United Nations, Netanyahu’s favorite prop this week was a whiteboard and a magic marker.
And the point he stressed over and over with that prop – writing the numbers on the board as though he were a school math teacher – was that the Blue and White Party has no chance of building a coalition of 61 Knesset seats without the support of the Joint List of Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi.
“It’s simple math.” Netanyahu said, writing on the whiteboard in Merom Hagalil on Wednesday night. “Gantz does not have a government without Tibi. It’s either Tibi or Bibi.”
Same theme, only slightly different variation, a night earlier in Lod: Gantz can’t form a government without support from the Arab parties – he does not have a Jewish majority.
“On the contrary,” he said, “we are very close to 61 – within touching distance. We need to do only one thing: to bring people out of their homes. You know where those voters are: they are here, in Lod, Bat Yam, Beit She’an.”
He then launched into a story he repeated at each rally, about a visit to Beit She’an on Monday, and the home of a “real Likudnik,” a civil engineer named Liran, who said he did not vote in the last election.
“I asked him, ‘Liran, why did you not vote?” Netanyahu said. “He replied, ‘I don’t know, I was convinced it didn’t matter, that you will win.’ And I said, ‘What about now?’ ‘Now,’ he said, ‘I will come to vote’.”
The crowd roared.
In Ma’alot on Wednesday, along with the “simple math” on the whiteboard, Netanyahu circled the number 300,000, and then said that there were two other areas where the votes can be found to push the Right over the top.
“I want to tell you where else we can get the votes,” he said, pointing to some 20 people sitting behind him. “The Russian-speaking community.”
Many of them, he said of the Russian-speakers, still vote for Liberman.
“But if you vote for Liberman, you vote for Gantz. You vote for Gantz, you vote for a government supported by Ahmad Tibi. You vote Liberman, you vote Tibi,” he said, taking aim at his Yisrael Beytenu nemesis. “Speak to your friends, relatives and families, and say, ‘If you vote for Liberman, you vote for Tibi.’”
And the other area where votes can be found, he said, “is our brothers and sisters from the Ethiopian community.” Referring to many Ethiopian-Israelis who voted for Blue and White in the last election following protests against police violence, Netanyahu said, ‘They went and left home for a minute, and are now all returning home. I went to Beit She’an and spoke to the kessim (religious leaders). We are going to bring them home to the Likud.”
Half a Knesset seat from the Russian community, he said, half a seat from the Ethiopian community, as well as greater turnout from Likud voters, and the election is in the bag.
Two elections after a well-honed “gevalt campaign” failed to get him elected as prime minister, Netanyahu this time is trying the opposite tack, projecting a sense of “just a little more, and this one is in the bag.” And that is one thing, at least, different this time around.