2019 elections countdown: 5 days to go, 5 key points

All parties are gearing up for the final showdown. Can the PM hold back from cannibalizing other right-wing slates? Will Lapid give up rotation? And how many Arabs will vote?

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Sheets of newly printed ballots seen at Palphot printing house, in preparation for Israel's upcoming general elections, March 20, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Sheets of newly printed ballots seen at Palphot printing house, in preparation for Israel's upcoming general elections, March 20, 2019. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Five days before the April 9 elections for the 21st Knesset, the current state of affairs — and indeed the elections as a whole — may be summed up with a single word: entrenchment.

As of this moment, the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, does not appear to have made a serious dent in support for Likud and the right-wing. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ruling Likud party seem to be maintaining the strength and unity of the right-wing bloc, despite Netanyahu’s pending potential indictment for corruption.

So, are the elections essentially over? Well, previous elections have shown that last-minute events could change the results dramatically. Therefore, until Tuesday, it’s worth paying attention to the behavior of some specific stakeholders.

1. Likud: To cannibalize or not to cannibalize

Netanyahu is agonizing over a single dilemma: how to have his right-wing cake and eat it, too.

While the prime minister wants to increase Likud’s strength, he cannot take the risk of cannibalizing the small parties of the right-wing bloc: Many of them are hovering close to the electoral threshold, and depleting them could leave Netanyahu post-elections with a large party but no bloc big enough to support it for a coalition majority.

In talks with his Likud colleagues, Netanyahu has urged them to seek to siphon votes away from Blue and White, but to stop campaigning against the small satellite parties on the right. Netanyahu believes that while he can afford to lose one right-wing party to the threshold, he cannot afford to lose two.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the press at his official residence in Jerusalem on April 1, 2019, ahead of upcoming elections for the Knesset. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At the moment, Netanyahu’s strategy is to appeal to his base — playing the persecuted victim while criticizing President Reuven Rivlin’s supposed malicious intentions (Rivlin will be tasked, following the election, with giving either Netanyahu or Gantz the mandate of forming the next government) — but not at the expense of the right-wing parties. Netanyahu won’t even go against his long-time nemeses, the leaders of the New Right, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, or Zehut leader Moshe Feiglin, who claims that Netanyahu’s policies are a “strategic disaster.”

Of course, this tactic could change if Likud’s internal polls show a steep increase in Blue and White’s strength in the days and hours before the polls close. In that case, Netanyahu, the propagandist, may yet throw his right-wing partners under the bus.

2. Blue and White: Lapid in focus

Gantz and Lapid’s methods are the opposite of Likud’s. Having failed to attract more right-wing voters, Blue and White party leaders are now focusing on increasing their numbers even at the expense of the Labor Party. A poll published Thursday morning by the Haaretz daily indicated that this strategy has so far failed, and Labor is actually winning back voters who had been considering Blue and White.

That is an interesting fight to watch. On Blue and White’s corner stands Lapid, who has a bloody score to settle with Labor’s leader, Avi Gabbay. Convinced that Gabbay sent out private investigators six months ago to ferret out some sensitive information about him, Lapid wants to see the Labor leader wiped off the political map. Gabbay himself denies having made any such attempt. And, other than Lapid, no one in Blue and White is openly engaged in harsh attacks against Gabbay and Labor.

Lapid will be in the eye of the storm over the next two days. If the current trends in the polls continue and Blue and White loses strength, all eyes will turn to him, and some strategists will likely demand that Lapid give up the premiership rotation agreement he signed with Gantz, for the greater good. Some believe such a move could win the party several seats from moderate-right voters. Lapid, who is no pushover, is likely to refuse outright, but this option still looms large on his horizon.

Blue and White party leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz ahead of a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 21, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

3. Labor: Playing the ethnicity card

If Gabbay were a contender for the premiership today — as he had hoped to be when he ran for Labor’s leadership — he would have flooded the country with signs calling on people to vote for the first Mizrahi prime minister in Israel’s history.

Gabbay earlier attempted to engage in an ethnically motivated campaign, calling Netanyahu a racist and even suggesting Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White should emphasize his Syrian background. The ethnic angle never quite got off the ground. But with just a few days remaining, Gabbay could amplify that card to further distinguish himself among the center-left party leaders.

In any case, Gabbay and his colleagues in Labor will likely pump up the volume and intensify their battle against Blue and White, prophesying that Gantz and Lapid will join a government led by Netanyahu, and claiming that anyone who wants a dependably anti-Bibi party should vote only for Labor.

It will also be interesting to see whether Gabbay unleashes his senior party members, who have been somewhat marginalized in the campaign — primarily Shelly Yachimovich, Stav Shaffir, and Merav Michaeli; or if he continues campaigning exclusively with his new star, retired Maj. Gen. Tal Russo.

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay and party member Tal Russo during a press conference held in Kibbutz Nahal Oz during a visit to southern Israeli communities bordering the Gaza Strip, on March 7, 2019. (Flash90)

4. Zehut: New Right’s all-out battle

Feiglin is a fascinating man who bears watching, and not only during the final days of the election campaign. Particularly interesting is the intensifying wrestling match between New Right’s leaders Bennett and Shaked and Feiglin and his party, as well as the battles being waged by settler leaders against Feiglin on social networks.

Bennett’s working premise was that Feiglin would crash before the elections — but since this has not happened, Feiglin must be neutralized. The message is no longer “Bennett will defeat Hamas, and Shaked will defeat the High Court of Justice.” Instead, it is about Feiglin as a danger to the settlement project. For now, Feiglin is keeping his cool and not responding in kind, also a tactic of sorts. In any case, this battleground has become the hottest to watch as the elections approach.

Zehut party leader Moshe Feiglin (L) is seen during an election campaign stop in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on April 4, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

5. The Arab voters: Once again the decisive factor?

While all eyes these days are on the Jewish and mainly right-wing parties that are flailing to pass the electoral threshold, the key factor of the elections could come yet again from the Arab sector.

Hadash-Ta’al leaders Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi outside the Central Elections Committee on February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2015, the Joint List party brought a record number of Arab members into the outgoing Knesset, winning 13 seats. But this time around, the party is split, running with two heads: Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad.

Voter turnout among the Arab population is historically low, and it seems next week’s elections will be no different, which could leave the political arena without one of the two Arab parties — likely Ra’am-Balad. In such a case, the number of Arab Knesset members would decrease by almost half, and many of the current political calculations could be upended.

The significance of this scenario can hardly be exaggerated. Aside from the battle between the large blocs and parties, what happens in the Arab sector could end up being the most decisive element on April 9.

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