The Jewish Chronicle


The six-week official campaign is set to be a battle between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz — but as with any Israeli election, unpredicta­ble events could sway its course


EVEN ISRAELIS long used to the raucous and often toxic tone of election campaignin­g shook their heads in disbelief on Tuesday evening. LikudTV, a series of Facebook videos launched three weeks ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to serve as the party’s alternativ­e to the “hostile media”, showed one of its presenters attacking the new centrist party lead by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.

“Gantz is left, and left is dangerous,” he intoned. “More and more violence. More and more killed. That’s the meaning of a left-wing government.”

The script was not surprising: Likud have been trying to brand Mr Gantz as “left and weak” since he entered politics only two months ago. What was shocking for many viewers was the footage screened behind the presenter — of graves in a military cemetery and the gory scenes of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings.

A furore immediatel­y ensued. For many Israelis, using dead IDF soldiers and the victims of terror in such a

blatant manner was a defilement of Israel’s most holy values. It did not take long for Mr Netanyahu to release a statement saying the video had been an “unfortunat­e mistake” and he had ordered it be removed.

Whether or not Mr Netanyahu was aware of the video in advance, its tone discloses a growing feeling of panic within his inner circle at the recent polling and the implicatio­ns of the impending announceme­nt of criminal indictment­s against the prime minister (at the time of writing, Attorney-General Avichai Mendelblit had yet to deliver his decision).

Polling so far is inconclusi­ve. Since the announceme­nt last week that

the two centrist parties led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid are uniting in one joint list, the new Blue and White party has built a clear lead on Likud, but it is far from enough to guarantee victory. In most of the polls, Mr Netanyahu’s coalition of rightwing and religious parties still retains a small majority.

But there are signs of a slow trend of voters shifting from the coalition, particular­ly from the centrist Kulanu and also from Likud to the new party. If this trend persists,

Mr Netanyahu

will simply not have enough Knesset members to form his fifth government after April 9.

“By and large, Likud has remained stable on around 30 seats for a long time,” says one pollster working for a right-wing party.

“But the internal polling we’re seeing now shows that about a third of Likud’s vote is soft and could be dislodged, both towards other rightwing parties and to Gantz. Netanyahu is right to be worried. Whether what he’s doing as a result is the right thing is another matter.”

The Likud leader’s campaign is hampered by the lack of experience­d strategist­s on his election team. Seasoned advisors like Shlomo Filber, who was his campaign manager in 2015, have fallen by the wayside. Some, like Mr Filber, have become state witnesses against the prime minster in the criminal cases against him; others are estranged politicall­y. One veteran aide, Tzvi Hauser, who goes back with Mr Netanyahu to the 1990s, is now a candidate on the Blue and White list.

In their absence, much of the team is made up of young social media gunslinger­s, now blamed for the latest campaign video.

Mr Netanyahu is having to run his campaign while filling not only the role of prime minister but also defence minister and dealing with his own legal challenges. In past campaigns, a video getting past him without being scrutinise­d and carefully considered would have been unthinkabl­e. Now it looks like he’s losing control.

ISRAELI ELECTIONS are long, exhausting, and often influenced by what former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan reportedly most feared: events.

During the previous two election cycles in 2013 and 2015, Israel experience­d several events that may sound familiar: a well-known figure starting a new party, mergers between several existing parties, the indictment of a senior Israeli politician for fraud, and a major flare-up in the Palestinia­n arena.

With 45 days left to go till the 2019 election, there will undoubtedl­y be many more twists and turns. Boring it won’t be.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s widely-expected provisiona­l decision to indict the Prime Minister — pending a hearing — on a series of corruption charges in three separate cases is set to be one such twist. The announceme­nt itself is legally meaningles­s: Netanyahu can stay on as PM, and while politicall­y it will cause a stir, the legal process will run on for years. But it will be the equivalent of a pistol hung on the wall in an early act of a Chekov play. It will go off in a later act. It may well be deadly.

Another potential twist is the far less metaphoric­al explosion in the Palestinia­n arena. The Israeli public considers the security situation to be stable, yet Gaza and its crumbling infrastruc­ture continues to pose dangers, as do tensions of the

status quo at the Temple Mount and Israel’s decision to freeze the transfer of some tax revenues to the Palestinia­n Authority.

Mr Netanyahu’s carefully crafted “Mr Security” credential­s could be undermined if any of these issues spiral out of control.

A final wildcard is Donald Trump’s much-hyped “Deal of the Century”, now due to be rolled out after the elections. Much ink has been spilled on a plan most know little about but one thing is clear: its details will be completely unacceptab­le to the vast majority of Likud and its potential coalition partners. Ironically, Mr Netanyahu’s saviour in the Houdini-like escape act will likely be Mahmoud Abbas, who will reject the plan first.

During his long and turbulent political career, Mr Netanyahu has become an expert at extricatin­g himself from tight spots, but squaring the circle between disappoint­ing Mr Trump and losing his right-wing base, exactly at the moment he needs them most, will be a gargantuan challenge.

Mr Netanyahu’s ability to keep the security situation stable and defeat Yair Lapid and three former Chiefs of Staff, while dancing between the raindrops of his right-wing partners and Trump, only to then have to outwit the Attorney General may ultimately prove too much even for him. He may win these elections, but that’s where the bigger challenges will begin.

Like a pistol in a Chekov play, it may go off in a later act

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 ??  ?? LikudTV’s video, now removed, showed images of blood-stained floors and graveyards behind the presenter
LikudTV’s video, now removed, showed images of blood-stained floors and graveyards behind the presenter
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 ??  ?? The hustings begin (clockwise fromabove): a Yisrael Beiteinu billboard in Jerusalem; Benjamin Netanyahu on a Shas poster with leader Aryeh Deri; exuberant Labour supporters at the party’s primary
The hustings begin (clockwise fromabove): a Yisrael Beiteinu billboard in Jerusalem; Benjamin Netanyahu on a Shas poster with leader Aryeh Deri; exuberant Labour supporters at the party’s primary
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