Israel media review

Bitter poll to swallow: What the press is saying on December 10

Polls show big numbers for Gideon Sa’ar’s upstart party, but is Netanyahu running scared, or is the former Likud minister a paper tiger?

MK Gideon Sa'ar in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)
MK Gideon Sa'ar in the Knesset plenum on December 9, 2020. (Dani Shem Tov/Knesset Spokesperson)

1. The big rethink? It took only a day, but major Israeli news outlets are already reporting on efforts to push off elections following the announcement by Gideon Sa’ar that he was splitting off Likud to form his own party.

  • “Sa’ar effect,” reads the top headline of popular tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth.
  • “Senior Likud members claimed yesterday that there are quiet, low-key contacts with Blue and White to try and reach a compromise to push off elections,” the paper reports.
  • It adds that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “even sounded conciliatory” when speaking a day earlier, injecting meaning into his previously meaningless mantra that he wants to avoid elections (previously seen as part of him trying to avoid being blamed for sending the nation back to the polls).
  • It adds that Blue and White is denying the claim and notes that the sides have only until December 23 to reach a deal on the budget if they want to avoid the vote.
  • Israel Hayom also leads off with the claims of talks, reporting that Netanyahu is attempting to both avoid elections and avoid the rotation that would give his seat to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. Well not avoid the rotation, but “push it off” until May 22, 2022, while also extending the Knesset’s term by a year instead of killing it at three.
  • What’s in it for Gantz? According to the paper, he gets to climb down from his threats and avoid electoral obliteration.
  • The paper conveniently doesn’t mention the fact that the date would give Netanyahu a fresh way to engineer another budget crisis in a year to keep from handing over the reins, though perhaps that is obvious.
  • The test balloon is in fact so cockamamie that even Likud denies it.
  • Soon to be ToI political correspondent Tal Schneider asks on Twitter what exactly it would take for Gantz to believe any deal Netanyahu makes with him.
  • “Should Netanyahu sign a document for Gantz promising to do it? Should he promise on live TV ‘without tricks or shtick’? Should he change the laws to show he’s serious?” she asks, mentioning all the things he has already done and reneged on.
  • As a counterpoint to those who see Netanyahu recoiling from elections, Haaretz reports that December 23, the day the Knesset will dissolve automatically if the 2020 budget hasn’t passed, Netanyahu will be in the UAE, which will form a centerpiece of his campaign.
  • “The prime minister plans to use it to send the message that he was leading a ‘historic journey’ for Israel while his rival Gantz is caught up in ‘petty politics.’”
  • Others see the vaccine shipments as the soapbox he will bellow from.

2. Sliding down the poll: What’s the big fear? The polls are, according to the pundits.

  • No shocker, all three major networks published polls Wednesday night showing big gains for Sa’ar, and an embarrassment of various permutations that can be worked out.
  • Despite obvious flaws with the polls, regarding their methodology, sample sizes and the fact that polls on a new party generating tons of press generally skew favorably toward them, all the polls are taken at face value and seen as the main impetus for Netanyahu and possibly Gantz.
  • Plus, as my colleagues at ToI note, “a notable caveat in reading these polls is that the parties are far from set for the elections shaping up to take place in March. Additional new parties, as well as splits and mergers of existing ones, will no doubt be coming as the nation gears up for its fourth vote in two years — and polls will fluctuate accordingly.”
  • At least one veteran pollster gets it.
  • Channel 12’s Amit Segal still deems his channel’s poll “dramatic,” and other channels also hype up their results, which show Sa’ar’s New Hope getting between 15 and 18 seats, making it the second or third largest party. Blue and White meanwhile drops to a paltry six or seven seats.
  • The entry of another right wing party that is supposedly anti-Netanyahu forces some interesting bloc-making by the journalists trying to analyze the results of the polls.
  • Kan for instance sticks ultra-hawkish secular party Yisrael Beytenu in the center-left-Arab camp, since it can’t find any other place for it.
  • Most channels take it as a given that Sa’ar will not join Netanyahu, putting him and all his votes in the “anti-Netanyahu” bloc.
  • Kan’s Yaron Deckel says the bloc, which will have 63 seats according to his channel, will be “much more stable, less flaky and less split” than the supposedly anti-Netanyahu bloc of 62 last time around.
  • Channel 13 notes that before the entry of Sa’ar, Netanyahu and allies — including Yamina — made it to 65 seats. Now they fall to 55 seats.
  • Given little weight by the channels is the fact that many members of the supposed anti-Netanyahu bloc won’t agree to join a government with the Joint List of Arab-led parties, which was a main sticking point last time around, and will seemingly remain a sticking point.
  • As Channel 12’s Segal notes on Twitter, going by self-definition, the actual makeup is “Right: 82, Center: 21, Left: 6 and Arab: 11”

3. Sa’ar loser: Despite all the excitement around Sa’ar supposedly shaking things up, there is the beginning of a backlash to what may be overreach by some pundits over how much of an effect Sa’ar will actually have.

  • “This is just a new party’s moment, I wouldn’t give it too much weight,” Blue and White minister Chili Tropper tells Army Radio.
  • “Gideon Sa’ar has taken a brave step, but it’s doubtful he’ll turn into a superhero,” writes former political insider Aviv Warshavsky for Channel 12. “He’s put King Bibi in check, but without any significant supporting piece, he’ll end up in checkmate himself and turn into the turkey.”
  • Political commentator Gershom Gorenberg, who has been around the block a few times, is also not ready to dive in. “This country exists,” he tweets in a smart thread, “to make fools out of would-be prophets.”
  • “On paper it makes the most sense, the numbers are not in Gantz’s favor, but I’m not sure Netanyahu is one hundred percent in hysterics. This is a shake-up on a tactical level,” cautions Ynet’s Attila Somfalvi on 103FM.
  • Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer writes that “Netanyahu has weathered all previous defections from Likud, and most of the parties formed by the splitters have long since disappeared. Only Kadima ever became a party of power, and that was just for a single term. Sa’ar’s yet unnamed party is unlikely to do any better than those that preceded it.”
  • The bottom line is that this can go too many different ways, admits ToI’s Haviv Rettig Gur, who writes that Sa’ar may have shaken things up, or kept them the same, or maybe it’s just too early: “Is Sa’ar helping Netanyahu by weakening his most plausible challenger Bennett? Or is he weakening Netanyahu further by opening a pathway for a center-right parliamentary majority without him? Or put another way, can Bennett, Sa’ar, and Lapid, three ambitious claimants to succeed Netanyahu each at the helm of a roughly similar-sized party, trust each other and cooperate for long enough to oust Israel’s longest-serving premier? Will their cooperation survive, for example, a Netanyahu rotation offer to the largest of them? No one knows the answer to that question yet. Nor is the current state of play the final word.”

4. Hanukkah miracle: Speaking of unknowns, Israel’s daily dalliance with proposing and pulling restrictions had the media first reporting that the government would impose special no-visiting-others’-homes restrictions on Hanukkah evenings starting Thursday at 5:30 and lasting eight nights, then starting a day later and lasting seven, and finally lasting not even one night.

  • Several news outlets report that a meeting on the restrictions fell apart Thursday morning, as ministers rebelled against the proposal.
  • Channel 12 news, in any case, reports that Netanyahu said the restrictions won’t go into effect Thursday. There’s no official word on that though — or on the proposed restrictions — meaning that Israelis are none the wiser with only a few hours until they are maybe set to start.
  • Ynet reports that the meeting fell apart after Blue and White ministers called foul, and Netanyahu left the room, deciding instead to meet with Gantz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and leave the rabble out of it.
  • Minister Alon Schuster was not amused, in the outlet’s telling. “The Hanukkah restrictions have crossed the line past good taste. I don’t like the government plenary bypassing the cabinet and trying to make decisions,” he says, using a strange turn of phrase to refer to the triumvirate of Netanyahu, Gantz and Edelstein.
  • Kan reports that the idea of a curfew is off the table, though that’s seemingly been the case for a few days now. What it actually means, it seems, is that the whole idea of Hanukkah restrictions are off the table, a report later repeated by several other Hebrew media outlets.
  • Mocking the prime minister’s claims that European countries turn to Israel for advice, the station’s Amichai Stein tweets that Israel is really only expert at one thing. “The truth is that there is no country in the world with this: That 10 hours before a holiday, they are deciding on the restrictions for the holiday. All the rest of our management and chaos, you can always find other examples of. But for this, they actually need to call and ask us.”

5. Poor showing: Israel is certainly not alone when it comes to poverty, but a widely covered report shows that it’s doing little to excel at eradicating it in any case.

  • According to the report by the Latet nonprofit, the portion of Israeli households living in poverty rose from 20.1 percent to 29.3% in 2020.
  • ToI’s Sue Surkes reports that those numbers mean “an estimated 850,000 households in Israel lack essential housing, education, healthcare and food, with 268,000 households falling into poverty since the start of the pandemic earlier this year.”
  • The numbers are much higher than the state’s and one from the Leket hunger organization, since “Latet’s Alternative Poverty Report measures poverty according to households lacking in essential needs such as housing, education, healthcare, food security, and the ability to cover the cost of living.”
  • Yedioth devotes its first two pages to the report, and another two to failing businesses on a single street in Hadera.
  • “My kids come over and I don’t have what to feed them,” a divorced father of two whose dessert business went under due to the pandemic tells the paper. “I’m barely making NIS 2,500 a month. I can barely afford food, live with my mom or grandma because I can’t make rent. I want my life back.”
  • Eren Weintraub, the head of Latet, tells Army Radio that there has not been a spike like that since the state was founded. “All due respect to the non-profits, only the government has the power to change the situation … this needs to be by consensus.”
  • Not everybody is suffering. As the shekel gains muscle on the dollar, some in Israel are actually making money, economist Amir Kahanovich tells Haaretz.
  • “A lot of people in Israel hold that a strong shekel isn’t good, but when the shekel is strong the public grows richer. Gross domestic product per capita is higher in global terms,” he tells the paper. “The case against a strong shekel is that it hurts the old-line industries, which struggle to compete with much lower-wage countries. That will lead to unemployment. However, the weighting of these industries in the economy has shrunk a lot, so despite the shekel’s strengthening, we haven’t seen economic damage. The Israeli consumer is benefitting.”
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