Benjamin Netanyahu comes out swinging

Political Affairs: There is something to primaries – they get people interested and engaged. This primary fight is energizing Netanyahu, and he is using it as a way to energize his base.

SUPPORTERS OF Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rally for him in Tel Aviv last month.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
SUPPORTERS OF Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rally for him in Tel Aviv last month.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this election is it. This is his “to be or not to be” moment.
If he wins, he returns to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street for a few more years. If he loses, he faces uncertainty: years of trials and appeals and a possible jail term.
“The undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of,” Hamlet said in his most famous soliloquy, speaking of death.
A loss for Netanyahu will not be death, but it will cast him onto unknown turf, turf he definitely does not want to explore. Much better the ills he has to bear in office – “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”– than the dread of what may come after.
That reality is stark, and has energized Netanyahu on the campaign trail in a way not seen in the previous two election campaigns. From Lod to Holon on Monday, to Haifa, Yirka, Nahariya and Acre on Tuesday, to Petah Tikva and Kfar Chabad on Wednesday, Netanyahu is crisscrossing the land and holding rallies in halls and homes in a way he did not do the previous two rounds.
The prime minister ticks off his achievements, and the crowd chants “It’s because of you, it’s because of you.” He talks about how he withstood the pressure of president Barack Obama, “and the crowd rhythmically chants Bibi, Bibi, Bibi.” He talks of his – and only his – ability to influence public opinion abroad, and the faithful respond by singing “Bibi, King of Israel.”
“Who can influence public opinion?” he asked in Petah Tikva Wednesday evening. “Benny Gantz, he will influence America? Yair Lapid? You want me to continue into the ranks of Likud?” he said, in a sharp jab at his primary rival, Gideon Sa’ar. “I’ll stop here.”
He fires up the crowd, and the crowd fires him up in return.
Blue and White’s Gantz, by contrast, is giving measured speeches at the Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society in Jerusalem, or making a couple of comments to a gaggle of reporters following him to the Golan Heights. A week into the newest campaign and Netanyahu is sprinting, as if he is running for his life – which, to a certain extent, he is – and Gantz, so far, is walking in the park.
There is obviously another reason as well. The first hurdle Netanyahu has to cross is next week’s primary against Sa’ar.
Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that to a certain degree Gantz’s party is starting the campaign late, “because they are waiting to see what happens in the primaries.”
The wait is not to see whether Sa’ar will indeed beat Netanyahu – few imagine that will happen – but, rather, what impact a Sa’ar defeat will have on the party, and whether disgruntled Likudniks may break ranks amid a feeling that there were “dirty tricks” in the primary.
The result: while Blue and White is warming up the engines, Netanyahu – because of the primary race – is already going full throttle. And, judging by the time and energy Netanyahu is devoting to Likud rallies, he is not taking the primary contest lying down. He is out there campaigning. Shaking hands. Kissing babies. Standing on chairs so he can be seen and heard. Pumping the Likud flesh.
There is something to primaries – they get people interested and engaged. This primary fight is energizing Netanyahu, and he is using it as a way to energize his base.
And that is his strategy – energize the base, get the base out there to vote. Fire ’em up – not only for the primary, but for the general election that will follow two months later.
And fire ’em up he must, if Netanyahu stands a chance to win – something that early polling shows he will not do – in March. From the election on April 9, to the one on September 17, Netanyahu lost the equivalent of 10 seats.
How so?
Netanyahu folded both Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut into the Likud between the April voting and that in September. The Likud and Kulanu running separately won 39 seats in the April elections. Feiglin did not pass the 3.25% electoral threshold, but nearly 120,000 people voted for him, which is the equivalent of three seats. Add the Likud, Kulanu and Feiglin votes together, and that is 42 seats in April. In September, the Likud, with Kahlon and Feiglin inside, won only 32.
The Likud’s challenge is to recover those seats. And the early strategy of the campaign is to get people excited on the one hand, and afraid of the alternative on the other: to dangle in front of their eyes the prospect of a left-wing government in order to recoup those voters who strayed and bring them, as Netanyahu likes to say, “back home.”
In the last two campaigns Netanyahu warned of the Arabs voting – something that backfired badly in September, as the Arabs did indeed come out to vote, to a large degree because the prime minister made clear he was hoping that they would not.
AFTER TWO inconclusive elections, and nonstop discussion about Netanyahu’s legal woes, the country is sick of elections. Common are the conversations with people who say that they are sick of it all, won’t vote this time, and that it doesn’t matter anyway because the results will be the same.
Yisrael Bachar, a man who was in charge of polling for Netanyahu from 2006 to 2011 but who today is a strategist for Blue and White, said in a KAN Bet interview this week that the public is “disgusted” with the whole political system, and is tired of the endless talk about Netanyahu’s immunity and the political process.
That type of discourse is cut off from the needs of the people, he said. “I think the time has come to talk to the people about them, about their lives – not about politics and the process.”
For Netanyahu, the feeling of being fed up with the system – not wanting to vote this time around – spells disaster. And, as a result, he is taking to the streets in order to ensure that election fatigue does not lead to his base sleeping in on the day of voting and not casting their votes.
Sandler said that although he hears the voices of those saying they are fed up with the political system, he doesn’t think that voter turnout this time will be much different from what it was in September, and that it may even be higher.
Contrary to what most expected, voter turnout in September was slightly higher (69.8%) than it was five months earlier (68.5%). This was largely attributed to a much larger turnout in the Arab sector, where 59.2% of eligible voters cast their ballots in September, as opposed to 49.2% in March.
As the current campaign heats up, Sandler predicted, people who now say they will not vote are likely to go to the polls. A survey carried out by the KAN broadcasting authority this week found that 65% said they would surely go cast their ballots in the upcoming voting, and only 2% said they definitely would not take part in the elections. (Another 21% said they were likely to vote, and 3% responded that they were unlikely to vote.)
If those figures turn out to be accurate, then despite the disappointment many feel in the parties for not preventing another election, the voter turnout will not go through the floor – something seen as a key for Netanyahu.
“This time he is fighting for his life,” Sandler said. “As a result, he will mobilize all the troops.”
In fact, he’s already started to try.