Israel’s election on Tuesday has generated less buzz internationally than any in recent memory.
Government Press Office director Nitzan Chen said that only a minimal number of foreign press were coming into the country to cover the race. CNN and BBC stars like Becky Anderson and Lyse Doucet, who take pride in parachuting in for Israeli elections, are skipping this one.
It is not COVID-19 that is keeping away international media VIPs, who have risked countless war zones. Chen said the foreign press would be welcomed with a simple coronavirus test.
It is ELECTION-4 that has inoculated against any interest in Israeli politics and made the world immune to catching any news in yet another race for the Knesset. There is no chance this race is going viral, they have decided, so they have left Israel quarantined from international attention.
But what the foreign press has missed is that the drama in this vote is actually asymptomatic. There may be no outward signs that this election is infected with excitement. But it is possible that unforeseen headlines lurk beneath the surface.
Unlike the past races they came in to cover, this election is extremely unpredictable, and that is what makes the contest so compelling. There are several reasons that, four days before Israelis head back to the polls, the race remains remarkably riveting and unprecedentedly up in the air.
FIRST OF all, veteran pollsters say there are a record number of undecided voters this close to Election Day. Pollster Mano Geva, who takes in-depth polls for several parties and for Channel 12, reported that one in every 10 Israeli voters remains undecided, which is 12 seats.
Another pollster said 18 mandates remain up for grabs, though he stressed that a hefty portion of undecided voters will stay home. He said the majority of undecided voters are right of center, yet do not want Benjamin Netanyahu to remain prime minister.
Secondly, there have never been more parties teetering on the elusive 3.25% electoral threshold. Meretz, Blue and White, Ra’am (United Arab List), the Religious Zionist Party and even Labor receive four or five seats in the polls, which puts them below the threshold within the margin of error.
That means a record number of votes could be wasted, breaking the previous peak in the April 2019 election, when the New Right Party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked flushed 138,598 ballots. A whopping 8.5% of all votes cast (366,016) were thrown out in that race.
By contrast, in the last election, in March 2020, less than 1% of the votes (36,901) were cast for parties that did not cross the threshold, even though a record low eight factions were elected.
When will we know whether the threshold-straddling parties have entered the Knesset? Not Tuesday night. They will apparently have to keep biting their fingernails until Friday, because a record number of Israelis – as many as 600,000 – will be voting in what are known as double ballots, which take longer to count.
Such ballots are being cast by emissaries, IDF soldiers, prisoners, the sick and quarantined with COVID-19 and, for the first time ever, Israelis returning from abroad at Ben-Gurion Airport. The airport polling station comes at an interesting time, because, due to the virus continuing to curtail business and pleasure trips, more Israelis than ever will be in the country on Election Day.
The coronavirus is, of course, yet another reason this election is unpredictable.
Will the virus scare Israelis away from potentially packed polling stations? Or will it actually compel them to vote, in order to take the opportunity to express their opinions on the government’s handling of the pandemic in the ballot box?
The Central Elections Committee is spending an unprecedented amount of money to ensure that anyone who wants to vote will be able to, without spreading the virus.
Another ailment that makes the race hard to predict is election fatigue. Turnout has risen from 68.5% in April 2019 to 69.8% in September 2019 and 71.5% in March 2020, but there is no indication that the trend will continue.
Pollsters say Arab-Israelis, who are less vaccinated than other sectors, could be the hardest to get to vote, especially if their polling stations are among those that have been changed due to the new rules required by the Health Ministry. The record 64.8% Arab turnout last time is unlikely to be repeated, despite the Likud’s efforts to woo voters for Netanyahu under his new moniker in the sector, Abu-Yair.
Both the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps have their ways of maximizing turnout. Senior sources in the Likud revealed exclusively that the party’s secret weapon is that it has at its disposal new technology for “microtargeting” different sectors.
So while in past elections, messages warning about high Arab turnout were sent to the Likud’s entire list, this time, the Arabs being wooed by the Likud, for instance, will receive messages very different from those sent to traditional Likud voters.
Another effort, by the Darkenu movement, which is apolitical but whose forerunners aimed to unseat Netanyahu, will use the Vote Tripling method employed by Democrats in November’s American election.
Darkenu launched the “Democrator” app and recruited and trained thousands of volunteers to stand outside polling stations in all sectors across Israel. They will approach citizens who have already voted and ask them to send voting-encouragement messages to family and friends.
But no app can be a substitute for work in the field done by parties with a strong election apparatus of committed activists. The parties known for that are the Likud, Yesh Atid, Labor and Bayit Yehudi, which is not running but has given its infrastructure for elections to Yamina. A deal reached with the Ani Shulman group of independent workers could also help Yamina.
New Hope has tried to make up for the deficiency of being a new party by rapidly assembling what it calls branches in 140 sites across the country. But it obviously has never been tested.
Another disadvantage faced primarily by New Hope is the fragility factor. Pollsters have found that only 30% of New Hope voters are completely certain that they will cast ballots for the party, compared to 47% of Yamina voters and close to 70% of Likudniks.
In the polls, the Likud, along with Yesh Atid, also has the advantage of being well ahead of the other 34 parties running in the election. The Bader-Ofer method, named after former MKs Yohanan Bader (Gahal) and Avraham Ofer (Alignment), gives the two largest parties greater chances of receiving surplus mandates when calculating the 120 Knesset seats.
Polls have trouble taking into account the fragility factor, field infrastructure and Bader-Ofer, which all harm their accuracy. Adding reported efforts by the Likud to get respondents to say they are voting Blue and White or Meretz could make the polls’ predictions more off than normal.
Friday is the last day polls can be published by law before the election. That makes those last few days fertile time for campaign strategists to make an impact under the radar.
While one strategist said any dramatic steps in a campaign’s final days looks “too political,” past elections have proven that Netanyahu does not subscribe to that theory.
What is known as an October surprise in American elections has been a central component of Netanyahu’s strategy, and he tried again unsuccessfully in this race three times.
He tried to obtain an invitation to Abu Dhabi, which would have highlighted his recent diplomatic successes. He invited Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla to visit Israel. And he tried to bring home belongings – and perhaps even the body – of Israel’s spy in Damascus, Eli Cohen.
Had any of those attempts succeeded, it not only could have attracted votes to the Likud, it also would have attracted the attention of the international media.
And had the foreign press come, perhaps they would have found out what they were missing in Israel’s unpredictable and asymptomatically interesting election.