Will Israel's third elections be a festival of hate, violence and disgust?

MKs waste no time in starting to campaign for the third time in a year, and it promises to be vicious. The question is if anyone will listen.

Tension was evident between Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the Knesset’s new session on April 30 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tension was evident between Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the opening of the Knesset’s new session on April 30
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
After weeks of speculation about what would unfold by midnight on December 11, when the clock struck 12 in the Knesset cafeteria, absolutely nothing happened.
No one turned into a pumpkin. No one formed a governing coalition. The Messiah did not come.
The MKs were lulled into complacency by what they saw as a cruel ruling by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon that the final votes on dispersing the Knesset did not have to take place by midnight.
The votes took place only at 3:30 a.m., much to their chagrin, but they did not even notice that it had already become official at midnight that the time had run out for an MK to obtain a mandate to form a government, and a third election was initiated automatically.
Once the Knesset was dispersed, the MKs went back into campaign mode, speaking from their prepared message list that they received from their parties, attacking their political opponents and accepting no blame for themselves whatsoever for the election.
One close aide to a top politician said he expected the election to start slowly, like last time, when the race did not get into high gear until just ahead of the September 17 election, because the parties did not want to waste political ammunition during the summer.
“It will take a while for this election to get to full gas,” the aide said at the cafeteria.
But Blue and White’s head of strategy, Israel Bachar, who worked with Benny Gantz in the last two elections, said no time would be wasted.
“In a campaign, you want to frame the debate as soon as possible,” Bachar said.
Bachar said he would like to focus more on Gantz during the third round of voting, but he knows he may not have that luxury in a discourse so focused on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political future.
“Benny has very good numbers on the question of fitness to be prime minister,” Bachar said. “He is tied with Bibi on that key question, which no other candidate could say over the past decade of Netanyahu in power. Benny is strong as a brand and as a leader.”
Unlike the April and September elections, when Gantz was joined as Blue and White’s candidate for prime minister by Yair Lapid, this time Lapid gave up the rotation, leaving Gantz alone in the limelight.
Polls have found that the rotation in Blue and White cost the party three seats, which were gained after Lapid announced he was giving up the rotation. Lapid will have to be on message this time, after running his own independent campaign the last two races.
In what could be his last speech for a while that does not have to be run through Blue and White’s strategists, Lapid told the Knesset on Wednesday that the election ahead would be so intense and dirty that it should be limited to adult viewing.
“Distance your children from the television,” Lapid warned. “There are [going to be] elections, and these elections will be a festival of hate, violence and disgust. Make sure your kids won’t be near the TV for the next three months, so they won’t see what their election representatives are saying.”
Asked if the race will really be that dirty, Bachar said: “Yes – Bibi will make it that way in order to save his skin.”
But the negative campaigning will once again be on both sides. Get used to hearing Blue and White MKs speaking a lot about the immunity from prosecution that Netanyahu did not rule out seeking this week after a challenge from Gantz.
While Blue and White will not recruit an American strategist this time, the Likud is actively seeking a replacement for Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who is busy with the campaign to reelect US President Donald Trump.
Jewish Insider reported this week that former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and deputy campaign manager David Bossie were in Israel to meet with Netanyahu about advising his campaign.
If Trump’s tactics will be employed here, Netanyahu will be attacking the legal establishment, the media and other perceived elites even more than he did in his past election campaigns.
Likud sources said he told party activists in meetings this week that he would spend more time in the field than he has in past campaigns, instead of relying on social media. The fact that the election will start with a primary race for leader of the Likud will require Netanyahu to hit the ground running in campaigning against both Gantz and Likud challenger Gideon Sa’ar.
In the April and September elections, Blue and White started with two candidates for prime minister in Gantz and Lapid, and Likud had only one. This time, Blue and White has only one, and Likud has two.
The December 26 Likud primary will be a key hurdle in this election. Other upcoming dates to keep in mind include January 1, when Netanyahu must give up his portfolios; the following day, when he must decide whether to seek immunity; and January 14-16, when lists of candidates will be submitted to the Central Elections Committee.
By that date, Labor-Gesher will have to decide whether it is running with Meretz; the religious-Zionist parties must sort themselves out again; and it will be clear whether a new protest party will be running with a new star who could steal the race’s thunder.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak will be sitting this race out, but another former IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, is on the sidelines and could be lured in. There are always political comebacks, and Tzipi Livni and Moshe Feiglin are among those who could come back and make waves this time.
There could also be high-profile departures of politicians who have become disgusted by their profession. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon could be the first to leave, and he is unlikely to be the last.
The question is whether any of the above maneuverings will spark voters, or whether the prospects of a third election in a year prompt the populace to turn off, tune out and stay away from the polling stations in droves. No amount of pairings or coalitions, new faces and old standbys can dilute the impression that nothing substantial will change on March 2 that wasn’t already revealed on April 9 and September 17.
Regardless, when the election is over, the challenge of forming a government will begin again. If someone succeeds, a saga that by all accounts has stretched on too long will finally end.
But no one can rule out a fourth election or a fifth, if a second and third one happened. After all, World War I was once called the war to end all wars, and it did not prevent another world war two decades later.