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In this strange election, Bibi may win but end up in prison

Originally published in the Jewish News

In three months, Israelis will go to the polls. We are only two weeks into the election campaign and already there have been party splits, merger talks and a bizarre live broadcast by Prime Minister Netanyahu requesting a reality TV show to face his accusers.

This was always going to be a strange election based almost entirely on personalities, not policy. Benjamin Netanyahu is the front runner and his Likud party have consistently topped the polls. As yet, no opposition leader has emerged with anything like his charisma, experience and telegenic media skills. But Netanyahu is labouring under the dark cloud of an imminent announcement by his own Attorney General recommending he be indicted for fraud and bribery. The election is just the first phase of a three part drama that could conclude with either Netanyahu surpassing David Ben Gurion as Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister or going to prison. Phase one is the easy part, winning the election. Phase two involves forming a governing coalition and phase three could be a criminal trial.

If the Attorney General agrees with the Police recommendation to indict Netanyahu it will transform the political dynamic but not necessarily reduce votes for Likud. Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu and Finance Minister since 2015, has said he will not serve under Netanyahu if he is indicted. Other party leaders may follow. We could see a scenario where support for Likud stays solid, Bibi emerges as the leader of the largest party (polls are predicting 27-31 seats) but he can’t form a governing coalition because key allies like Kahlon won’t join his coalition.

The big unknown in this election is the ultimate impact of former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. His new Israel Resilience party is predicted to win 12-14 seats, but he is largely taking seats from Yesh Atid and Labour. In a head to head poll against Netanyahu published on 8 January, Gantz was preferred as Prime Minister by 38 per cent of people, compared to 41 per cent for Bibi and 21 per cent undecided. There is no direct election for a Prime Minister so the poll has no practical use but it indicates the extent of dissatisfaction with Netanyahu and the frisson of a new face. But it is striking that no opposition politician has come that close to Netanyahu for years.

With Lapid losing support and Labour tanking, the story so far for the larger parties on the centre and left is their weakness. It is worth noting that Gantz has not yet given an interview or made a speech. His support could surge, or he could fade away. His novelty value is bolstered by being an unknown political quantity but boosted by the celebrity status of a former Chief of Staff. Gantz is smart, shrewd and very strategic. But the real question is how quickly he can think on his feet in the relentless tactical game of an election campaign and whether he can build a team around him of top quality political operators.

Over the next three months BICOM will be publishing a regular update that crunches the polling data into one aggregate poll. But this comes with a health warning. Israeli polls involve small samples and therefore have large margins of error. They give us an indication of the emerging trends but they shouldn’t be relied on to predict the exact strength of each party in the next Israeli Parliament. Most polls have a margin of error of 4 per cent. To enter the Knesset a party needs to win 3.25 per cent or 150,000 votes. Calculations about whether a party will win 4 seats or disappear are hard to deduce entirely from the polls.

The fate of smaller parties is however an area of increasing interest. If one or two small right-wing parties fail to enter the Knesset that could deprive Netanyahu of a 61 majority needed to form the next Government. Naftali Bennett left the Jewish Home to form a new party. The original Jewish Home may disappear. Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu had a poll bounce when he resigned as Defence Minister after the latest Gaza conflict, but his support has slipped to less than five seats.

Two major events will determine the course of this election. The first is the moment when the Attorney General actually makes his announcement. This is likely to be between February and early March. If he says Netanyahu should be indicted then expect Bibi to go into overdrive playing the victim and attacking the process. If he starts to look desperate and unhinged, it could decrease his popularity. The second moment will be when the parties submit their final lists on 21 February. By then we will know what political or security celebrities have joined the contest and crucially who has teamed up together.

My experience of British and Israeli politics has taught me that whilst there is a small group of nerds who obsess about politics, the vast majority of people don’t begin to engage until four weeks before an election. Until then we shouldn’t take the polls or the pundits too seriously if they attempt to predict the final result