April election cliffhanger

Despite Mandelblit’s decision to recommend indicting Netanyahu, the race between Likud and Blue and White remains tight.

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit recommended on February 28 that Netanyahu be indicted, pending a hearing (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit recommended on February 28 that Netanyahu be indicted, pending a hearing
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
With the Israeli election campaign entering its final stretch. it is still impossible to say who will be Israel’s next prime minister.
The fate of a handful of small parties hovering around the minimum threshold of 3.25 percent required for Knesset representation may be just as important as how many seats the main parties receive. This poses a critical dilemma for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party in the final weeks of campaigning.
Traditionally, as polling day nears, the Likud has focused its efforts on persuading supporters of the smaller parties within the right-wing/religious bloc to switch their allegiance to the Likud in order to ensure that the Likud leader is tasked by the president with forming the next coalition.
But such a strategy ahead of the April 9 vote could potentially backfire. The fear is that the Likud-led bloc is liable to lose the elections if some of the right wing/religious parties don’t cross the electoral threshold.
Polls a month before voting day showed that two potential Likud coalition partners – the ultra-Orthodox Shas and the centrist Kulanu headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon – would achieve the bare minimum of 4 seats. Another right-wing party, Zehut led by Moshe Feiglin was close to the threshold. Two other potential Netanyahu partners – Yisrael Beytenu headed by former defense minister Avigdor Liberman and Orly Levy-Abekasis’s new Gesher party – were projected not to win enough seats to enter the Knesset.
Syphoning off votes from these smaller parties may result in more seats for the Likud but could, at the same time, leave the right-religious bloc without enough partners to form a coalition.
Of particular concern for Likud was the potential collapse of Yisrael Beytenu, whose six seats in the last election came predominantly from secular, Russian-speaking immigrants.
Yisrael Beytenu officials were undaunted. “The polls are conducted online and in Hebrew. Our base is the elderly Russian community, which does not get counted there,” said party officials.
In an effort to help Yisrael Beytenu pass the threshold this time, the Likud reportedly cut back its own campaign among the Russian-speaking electorate.
A similar dilemma, but on a smaller scale, is faced by Blue and White, which would like to syphon off votes from Meretz but needs the left-wing party, which is forecast to win only 4-5 seats in some polls, to pass the threshold and recommend Gantz for prime minister.
Polls showed the Benny Gantz /Yair Lapid Blue and White centrist alliance as the largest party with around 33-38 seats, significantly ahead of the Likud with 29-31 seats (although a Haaretz poll showed a much closer 31-28 gap). However, the right-religious bloc still maintained a small advantage of 2 seats in most of the polls over a center-left bloc supported by the Arab parties.
President Reuven Rivlin is expected to task the formation of the next government to the leader who receives the most recommendations from the heads of parties represented in the new Knesset. However, if the blocs are almost neck and neck, he may opt for the leader of the party that wins the most seats.
Blue and White leader Gantz stressed the importance of emerging as the largest party with a significant lead over the Likud, in comments to party activists in early March, surreptitiously recorded by Channel 12 television.
“The issue of the sense of victory, if we come with Blue and White as a kind of huge centrist front and the gap [with the Likud] is dramatic, then there won’t be any debate [over who forms the government],” he said.
A dead heat between the blocs is also likely to increase the possibility of a unity government, possibly with a rotation agreement, despite the election campaign denials from both theLikud and Blue and White that such a scenario was a possibility.
Despite the close race, 53% of Israelis still believe Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government as opposed to only 27% who believe Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid in an alternating leadership will lead the country.
When Netanyahu decided to disband the outgoing government in December, no one knew what impact a decision by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to indict the prime minister on corruption charges would have on the election campaign.
On February 28, Mandelblit announced that Netanyahu will face charges in all three of the graft investigations against him, pending a hearing.
Some 86% of people told pollsters the decision would not change their vote and only 14% said it would, and the Likud vote held firm after the decision.
Mandelblit recommended bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is suspected of receiving favorable coverage on the Walla! News website in return for regulatory benefits to telecommunications giant Bezeq, both owned by businessman Shaul Elovitch.
Case 4000 was the most serious of the three affairs and the only one in which Netanyahu will be charged with bribery.
In Case 1000 Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, were investigated for allegedly accepting illicit gifts – including expensive cigars, pink champagne and jewelry – from billionaire businessmen Arnon Milchan and James Packer. Mandelblit announced indictments on charges of fraud and breach of trust in this case.
In Case 2000 Netanyahu is suspected of negotiating a deal with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, under which Netanyahu would work to curtail the activity of rival paper Yisrael Hayom in exchange for Yedioth Ahronoth softening its critical coverage. Mandelblit charged Netanyahu with fraud and breach of trust in this case.
Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign, even if indicted, but may find his political situation untenable if some potential coalition partners desert him. For now, all the parties indicated that they will stick with him, at least until the hearing process, which will only begin after the election and is expected to take at least a year, runs its course.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, claiming he is the victim of a left-wing witch hunt, assisted by a hostile media and judicial officials, intended to topple him. He likened the probes to a “house of cards that will soon come crashing down.”
“Rest assured, I will refute all the allegations,” he said, in a televised address following the attorney general’s decision.
Despite the drama surrounding the attorney general’s unprecedented decision it appears that the graft indictments will not be the deciding factor for Israeli voters in the final weeks of the campaign.
In 2006, the Pensioners’ Party only passed the threshold in the final polls a week before the vote and ended up winning seven seats.
Moshe Feiglin, who advocates a bizarre mix of far-right and libertarian policies, hopes to emulate the Pensioners’ Party this time around.
While Feiglin’s worldview, as manifested in his party platform, is steadfastly Orthodox and right-wing, his longstanding support for the full legalization of marijuana has produced a swell of support among left-leaning younger voters and could result in his party holding the balance of power ahead of the formation of the next government.
He managed to pass the threshold for the first time in 2 separate polls in early March and if he can maintain the momentum
Zehut will be the surprise package of the 2019 election.
Zehut’s late surge has left the Likud concerned. “Feiglin is dangerous and it’s impossible to know if he’ll endorse Netanyahu to form the government,” a senior party official said. “It will be very hard to work with him, but in any case he’s not a right-winger.”