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Changing direction, Lapid targets Blue and White, Labor voters

Parties fume at move, say it weakens bloc; PM hits Bennett but says he has ‘no problem’ with people voting for right-wing Religious Zionism party

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid at the Channel 12 'Influencers Conference' in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid at the Channel 12 'Influencers Conference' in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

With just over a week remaining until the election, Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid on Sunday made a bold change in his campaign’s direction, sending a series of late-night text messages to potential supporters warning that parties that are projected to win just a handful of seats will not be able to make a real difference.

“Parties with five seats do not change government and parties with six do not save democracy,” read a text signed by Lapid and sent to hundreds of thousands of people, alluding to the Blue and White and Labor parties, which are currently projected within that range.

“A big change can only be made by having a big Yesh Atid,” Lapid declared. His party is currently polling at around 20 seats.

Pointing a finger directly at Blue and White, which Yesh Atid had once been allied with but split from last year when its leader Benny Gantz agreed to form a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Lapid said: “Everyone involved in this bloated and wasteful government has kept Netanyahu in Balfour” street, where the Prime Minister’s Residence is located.

Yair Lapid on the 2021 campaign trail (Courtesy)

While the left-wing Meretz party is currently polling at just four seats in some polls, and others show it failing to cross the electoral threshold, a Yesh Atid source told The Times of Israel that the message was not aimed there.

“According to Yesh Atid’s data, Meretz will be crossing the threshold and we are not trying to take votes away from Meretz; we are not targeting Meretz,” the source said.

The move by Yesh Atid, and the claim that it is not aimed at Meretz, highlights a significant risk for Yesh Atid and the center-left camp: if Blue and White, Labor or Meretz fail to cross the threshold, it is unlikely that the anti-Netanyahu bloc will be able to reach a 61-seat majority.

Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz and supporters of his left-wing party protest against the government’s decision to keep schools closed, outside the Education Ministry in Tel Aviv, February 9, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Blue and White made that point in response to Lapid’s text messages.

“It is clear to Lapid that none of the parties in the left-wing bloc will pull out before the election,” a party source said. “Therefore, his entire move to siphon seats endangers hundreds of thousands of votes of the bloc.”

Labor likewise said that Lapid was weakening the bloc.

“While Netanyahu is fighting for [far-right Otzma Yehudit chair Itamar] Ben Gvir to pass the electoral threshold and strengthen the bloc, Lapid is working to remain without a bloc,” the Labor party said in a statement.

With Lapid turning on his own potential allies, Netanyahu has also increased the pressure on a possible partner, launching a decisive campaign to take votes away from Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the prime minister’s family has directed senior members of the Likud party to attack Bennett and attempt to siphon away his supporters by highlighting how he would need to work with Lapid to form a government without Netanyahu.

Over the weekend, Netanyahu posted two videos attacking Bennett, and on Sunday he appeared at a conference of the religious-Zionist Besheva newspaper before spending an entire day visiting West Bank settlements.

Likud sources told Channel 12 news that the efforts had one goal: to take votes away from Yamina.

In this November 24, 2019 photo, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit an army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border. (Atef Safadi/Pool via AP, File)

At the same time, Netanyahu, speaking at the Besheva conference, made clear that he was happy with people voting for the right-wing Religious Zionist party, which must pass the threshold for him to hold onto his hope of reaching a 61-seat majority.

“The Religious Zionist party will be with us under all circumstances. I have no problem if you decide to vote for them.” he told the conference.

Likud’s Transportation Minister Miri Regev, however, told the same conference that she believed “anyone who does not put Likud in the ballot box is a misanthrope.”

Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who lowered her face mask to speak, during a press conference at the Transportation Ministry in Jerusalem on July 8, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Pushed on what she meant, she clarified “I mean ungrateful.”

“If there is someone who saves your life and ensures a good life for you later on, anyone who does not vote for him is a misanthrope,” she said.

Regev later walked back the comment, saying the word “doesn’t correctly express what I intended.”

A Sunday TV poll predicted continued deadlock after the election, with the pro- and anti-Netanyahu blocs evenly split and the Islamist Ra’am party narrowly crossing the electoral threshold to become possible kingmaker.

The Channel 13 survey gave Netanyahu’s Likud 28 seats, followed by Yesh Atid, which received 20. Naftali Bennett’s Yamina remains steady at third with 11 seats, while Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope sees another poll predicting a single-digit result with just nine seats.

The majority-Arab Joint List received eight seats followed by the secular, right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, which received seven, as did  the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism party. The Haredi Mizrahi party Shas was predicted to receive just six seats in the next Knesset compared to its current nine.

The far-right Religious Zionism party, which has been consistently polling at four or five seats, received six in the latest poll. It was tied with Labor, which is led by the only female party leader of this election, Merav Michaeli.

Rounding out the poll was a three-way tie of Meretz, Blue and White and the Islamist Ra’am party, which all received four seats, just crossing the electoral threshold.

The survey indicated that neither Netanyahu and his allies nor those opposed to him can form a majority coalition of at least 61 seats. Likud, UTJ, Shas and Religious Zionism have 47 seats, which rises to 58 if Yamina joins. The anti-Netanyahu bloc of Yesh Atid, New Hope, Joint List, Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, Blue and White and Meretz also has 58 seats. Ra’am with its four seats could therefore become the tiebreaker.

The upcoming elections — the fourth in two years — were called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.

The election, like the previous three votes, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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