As Lapid emerges as challenger, Likud signals it’s no more Mr. Nice Campaign

Centrist Yesh Atid has pulled ahead of Netanyahu’s rightist rivals in the polls, meaning Likud can pivot from talk of ‘unity’ to a much muddier and less friendly strategy

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid after addressing the Knesset ahead of the swearing-in of the new government, March 18, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraces Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid after addressing the Knesset ahead of the swearing-in of the new government, March 18, 2013. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)

Fifty days remain until election day. Saturday will mark the halfway point of the campaign begun when the 23rd Knesset dissolved itself in December.

Pundits and politicians have already noted that the latest election, the fourth in two years, is categorically different from the first three. No longer is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened by the cohesive and unified center-left alliance that Blue and White once was.

His greatest threat, political bean-counters averred, now came from the right, from challengers Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, whose impeccable right-wing credentials made them viable alternatives for traditionally right-wing voters disenchanted with Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic in recent months.

That wisdom has shaped the campaigns.

Gideon Sa’ar meets with several Israeli hospital directors at a protest tent outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem, January 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bennett’s campaign has focused on the government’s often confused and stuttering pandemic policy, railing at the failure to impose and enforce “zero-transmission” policies of the sort in force in New Zealand.

Sa’ar’s campaign has spotlighted the populist and rough rhetoric frequently heard from Likud parliamentarians. One ad highlighted moments in Knesset plenum sessions and committee meetings when various Likud ministers and lawmakers shouted “idiot,” “you’re all nothings,” and one minister’s podium speech on the kinds of “manyak” he finds in the political system, a curse in Hebrew that is roughly equivalent to “asshole.”

The Netanyahu government is a loutish “mess,” the ad explained. To be rid of it, “we need a ‘New Hope.’”

A New Hope party campaign video from January 2021 featuring intemperate quotes from Likud MKs. The words floating over the televisions include, ‘You’re an idiot’ and ‘Nothings.’ (Social media)

Peace, love and vaccines

Likud, fearful of a right-wing rebellion against its increasingly coarse political style, initially responded with an astonishing about-face in its campaigning style.

Its more indelicate lawmakers were prohibited from offering media interviews, keeping their salty tongued barbs off the airwaves.

The party’s ads, for the first time in a very long time, praised national unity, diversity and solidarity. Gone were the ominous warnings of Arab voters pushing into power an anti-Zionist coalition of the “left.” The new campaign was about “all of us, together.”

A Likud campaign video from January 2021 featuring Israeli health workers holding a coronavirus vaccine, with the words ‘We are all Israelis.’ (Social media)

One Likud campaign video shared online last week recalled the early days of Zionist Jewish settlement in the Galilee, when “we drained the swamps together, as one nation,” Netanyahu’s voice crooned. Israelis would go on to found their state “as one nation,” he continued, and to build Israel’s storied high-tech sector “as one nation.”

That “one nation” extended even to the Arabs. Israelis, in harmonious unison, integrated “all the sectors” of society, Netanyahu enthused, including “Jews and Arabs” – the words appearing in the video atop a background image of a Jewish woman and a Muslim woman embracing.

It wasn’t a one-off video. Another campaign ad panned from sweaty young secular dancers on the dance floor of a Tel Aviv nightclub to worshipers dancing in a synagogue. “It doesn’t matter” which dance you prefer, the narrator affirmed, or whether you listen to American rapper Kendrick Lamar or Israeli pop stars Static and Ben-El.

What matters is that “we’re all Israelis. We will all get vaccinated. We will all win this together and get back to life.”

A Likud campaign video from January 2021 depicting a Jewish woman and a Muslim woman embracing. (Social media)

The campaign made a simple case: Likud is not defined by its divisive populists. It’s the party of unity, of a Netanyahu delivering coronavirus vaccines to a weary nation.

The feel-good campaign reached a kind of apotheosis on Thursday when Netanyahu posted to Twitter a photograph of a sunrise. It wasn’t even that morning’s sunrise. The photo was snapped several days earlier. One Likud staffer joked that the campaign’s next step would be the opening of a yoga studio.

An enemy rises

That was last week, when Sa’ar’s New Hope party was still the second-largest in polls after Likud, leading the pack of medium-sized parties vying to lead the anti-Netanyahu coalition.

But Sa’ar’s star has slowly waned, and a slow shakeup on the left — the weakening of Ron Huldai’s The Israelis party and various other center-left upstarts – has helped push centrist Yesh Atid into second place.

Now, halfway through election season, Netanyahu finally has the campaign he wants.

Likud party supporters at an election campaign tour in Jerusalem, September 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

With Yair Lapid’s party now seemingly in the lead among the opposing camp — a Friday poll in Maariv gave Yesh Atid 18 seats to New Hope’s 14, and a Sunday Channel 12 survey similarly predicted 17 seats for Yesh Atid and 14 for New Hope — and with the political fruits of the vaccination campaign possibly delayed by the arrival on Israel’s shores of the more contagious and virulent variants of the coronavirus from Britain, South Africa, and elsewhere, the logic behind the unity-and-vaccines campaign is fading quickly.

It may not have lasted anyway. Human nature being what it is, appeals to unity are rarely mobilizing. There’s also too much footage of Likud lawmakers’ caustic rhetoric in recent years to successfully silence the party’s critics on that score.

A Likud campaign centered on the idea that “our strength lies in our unity” would be best understood as a temporary defensive line, an attempt to stop the bleeding to Sa’ar and Bennett while Netanyahu waited to see which medium-sized party emerged as his election nemesis.

Yair Lapid speaks at a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling on him to quit, at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, April 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

The first glimmers of the new campaign came on Saturday night in response to Sa’ar’s latest promise not to sit in a Netanyahu-led government.

“Even Gideon Sa’ar knows,” Likud said, “that the only question in these elections is who will lead Israel in the face of the coronavirus, will strengthen its economy and security, and will fight off Iran – Prime Minister Netanyahu or Lapid.”

The race is on

The pivot is still fresh. Not everyone has caught on.

When former justice minister Avi Nissenkorn, until Sunday a candidate in left-wing The Israelis, announced he was leaving politics on Sunday, two Likud MKs offered opposite responses.

Likud MK Osnat Mark during a Knesset committee meeting on May 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Backbencher MK Osnat Mark, a rabble-rouser who plays a starring role in New Hope’s videos about Likud’s caustic politics, thrilled at the news. “Wonderful news to start the week…. I hope it’s the last nail in the coffin of our rule by the High Court and bureaucrats,” she wrote on Twitter.

Coalition chairman MK Miki Zohar is also a favorite among aficionados of intemperate rhetoric, but he is also a savvier and more senior lawmaker than Mark, one who plays a meaningful role in Likud’s political planning.

“Make no mistake,” he tweeted. “The dissolution of Huldai’s party is bad news for the right.”

Why is the implosion of The Israelis “bad news?” Because it strengthens Lapid, of course.

But why is a stronger Lapid bad news for the right? The simple answer is that it isn’t. A stronger Lapid is the campaign boost Netanyahu has been hoping for. But pretending it is bad news is the heart of that campaign.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid arrives at the Blue and White party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on election night, March 3, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

That has been the strategy for weeks now: Stay positive in the face of Sa’ar and Bennett’s negativity, then turn negative when the fight flips from an intra-rightist battle to one between two opposing political camps.

The political fate of many will be decided this week. The final party lists must be registered by Thursday. Any final mergers or splits between parties vying for seats in the next parliament that are not finalized by then will not be on the ballot on March 23.

By week’s end, much will become clear. The center-left will take its final shape, with polls offering a first glimpse of where voters went after some center-left options disappeared.

Likud now has its nemesis, and will begin to flesh out that anti-Lapid campaign in the coming days. Lapid, to stay ahead, must now attempt to lead a divided flock of anti-Netanyahu factions from across the political spectrum — and keep it unified enough to deny Netanyahu a victory at the coalition negotiating table after the March election.

The race, at long last, has really and truly begun.

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