The Israeli polls have for weeks predicted another stalemate, with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party neck and neck. The current prediction is that neither will be able to form a 61-seat majority without Avigdor Lieberman.
But this week Benjamin Netanyahu proved once again why he is such a formidable and ruthless campaigner. With the sole objective to hoover up votes from the smaller right-wing parties he managed to dominate the news agenda. He escalated his claims of voter fraud in Arab communities by introducing a new law to allow party representatives to film inside polling stations. It was rejected, but that didn’t matter. The issue dominated the conversation and allowed him to claim that parties who opposed the measure were trying to steal the election.
On Monday he captured the evening news headlines with fresh revelations about Iranian violations of the 2015 nuclear deal and on Tuesday he pledged to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan valley, on top of his previous commitment to do the same for all Israeli settlements in the West Bank. To right wing voters this was a simple plea – vote for me and I will make your dreams come true. As the Arab world, Palestinian leaders, European allies and the UN sharply condemned the move, Bibi basked in the media limelight once again.
The final polls have started to show Likud edging ahead, so has this been a success? The reality is Netanyahu hasn’t had it all his own way this week.
President Trump’s repeated assertions that he would meet with the Iranian President and rumours of a new $15bn credit line to Iran highlight that for all Bibi’s claims about his alliance with Trump, the US President is moving in a very different direction.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu was giving a speech at a campaign rally in Ashdod when the warning sirens sounded indicating an incoming attack from Gaza. As the Prime Minister was swiftly escorted to a nearby shelter, the audience raised their phones to film the moment when even the Prime Minister had to take cover from incoming missiles. It was an image that highlighted the fragility of normal life in Southern Israel and for many Israelis exposed the absurdity of Netanyahu’s policy of limited military retaliation in Gaza while at the same time trying to negotiate a long-term ceasefire deal with Hamas. It was no surprise when Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz both promised much tougher military action in Gaza in future. Campaign pledges they may be, but the reality is that hostilities between Israel and Hamas are on hold until after Tuesday’s election. After that, a wider Israeli military campaign is a distinct possibility.
On Wednesday Joint List leader Ayman Odeh shoved his iphone in Bibi’s face as he filmed him close up in protest at the cameras law. The stunt aside, Odeh’s Joint List could be hit once again by low turnout in Arab communities and that could help propel Bibi to power. In April’s election Arab voter turnout crashed to 49 per cent from a high of 63 per cent in 2015. Arab parties lost more than 100,000 votes and three seats.
The turnout battle will define the election in other ways. In April, Blue and White and Likud pulled in more than a million votes each in an epic battle between those who can’t live with Bibi and those who can’t live without him. A second election in less than 6 months has led to a more lacklustre campaign. Blue and White is more organised with more resources but there is less energy. Benny Gantz may yet end up as Prime Minister, but if he does it won’t be because of his dynamism or guile and low cunning. He has played the role of an officer and a gentleman – the anti-Bibi quiet man who refuses to engage in Netanyahu’s gutter politics.
Instead it is Avigdor Lieberman who has starred in this election campaign with his constant jibes at Netanyahu for his (ironically) unholy alliance with the ultra-orthodox parties and his broken promises to deal with Hamas in Gaza. The polls suggest his ploy is working – he is predicted to double his tally of seats to ten in the next Knesset. That would give him the balance of power and perhaps closer to his vision of a three-way national unity Government with Likud and Blue and White but with Netanyahu edged out as leader. But this is still unlikely, unless Likud become the second largest party by a significant margin, which is why Netanyahu is so desperate to pull in voters from other right-wing parties.
As the election campaign enters its final phase the party leaders will be bracing themselves for the real battle that only begins after the voters have had their say.
Netanyahu failed to form a coalition in April, if he looks set to fail again his Likud rivals may take dramatic action. A new secular grand coalition would attempt to shift the uneasy status quo between religion and state. But when it comes to security policy, such as military action against Hamas, there is a surprisingly strong consensus. Those expecting a raft of enlightened progressive policies or a new initiative to restart talks with the Palestinian Authority should seriously manage their expectations.