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Israel election campaign turns nasty

What happened: With 5 days left until the 2 March Israeli election, all the campaigns are heading into the final stretch by doubling down on attacks against rivals in an effort to galvanise voter turnout, which is expected to be crucial.

  • Over the past week Likud has edged up in the polls, with some showing a slight lead for the party over its main challenger, Blue and White.
  • In recent campaign appearances and on social media, Benjamin Netanyahu has again raised questions about Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s fitness for office and his mental health. Netanyahu has also raised doubts about Blue and White’s number four, Gabi Ashkenazi, alleging that secret tapes exist that will force his retirement from political life. Ashkenazi yesterday fired back, saying that Netanyahu had recently offered him the job of Defence Minister.
  • According to Haaretz, quoting a source close to Blue and White, the party’s “campaign is stuck.” While the situation “may still be reversible,” the source said, “the party is primarily preparing to cut its losses, win as many seats as possible, and prepare for a fourth election.”
  • Blue and White number two Yair Lapid yesterday attempted to make progress with left-wing voters, writing on Twitter: “If you’re planning on voting Labor-Meretz ask yourselves one question: What will remain of Israeli democracy if Bibi wins by even one seat?” Blue and White have drawn direct parallels between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Erdogan.
  • The heads of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Aryeh Deri (Shas) and Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), said yesterday they would only join a government led by Netanyahu – even at the risk of the political impasse continuing and a fourth election.

 

Context: The main concern for all parties is the impact that general apathy (and the coronavirus scare) will have on voter turnout and, by extension, the allocation of Knesset seats.

  • While Blue and White are concerned about the recent poll numbers, the fear of an outright Netanyahu victory – previously thought to be a remote possibility – could boost turnout among their supporters.
  • Despite his corruption trial set to start two weeks after election day (17 March), Netanyahu has successfully projected an aura of “business as usual.” He is leading the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, promised to build thousands of housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank whilst emphasising that Israel – with American assistance – is on the verge of “historic” diplomatic achievements.
  • Blue and White leaders toured southern Israel yesterday in an attempt to focus attention on the Netanyahu government’s security policy in the Gaza Strip. A two-day escalation earlier this week, with citizens again running to bomb shelters, drew criticism from some quarters.

 

Looking ahead: Despite the shift at the top of the polls in favour of Likud, the numbers for most of the other parties remained stuck, indicating that in the crucial battle between the centre-left and right wing ultra-orthodox blocs neither is likely to be able to build a 61 seat majority coalition.

  • Blue and White are hoping to regain their lead over Likud in the race to be the largest party and to wage a public legitimacy battle against Netanyahu remaining prime minister as he defends himself in a criminal trial. In the last two elections, Netanyahu’s right-wing allies have not been moved by such arguments.
  • The polls indicate that Blue and White’s strategy of attracting “soft” right-wing voters has failed, putting into doubt its ability to even form a minority government without the active support of the Joint (Arab) List.