AnalysisLapid emerges as the Netanyahu of the center-left

In referendum election on Netanyahu’s achievements, victory again eludes him

PM dramatically beat back the threat from rightist rebels. Yet nothing he did — not even vaccines and peace agreements — could deliver a clear win at the ballot box

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Likud supporters at Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud supporters at Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

We still don’t have the final results of Tuesday’s election. It may take till Friday or even next week until the final vote count is official.

Only then will Israelis learn whether either political camp managed to eke out a narrow victory after three maddeningly inconclusive election cycles.

The exit poll numbers were so astonishingly close — and, in the fundamental divide between the Netanyahu camp and its anti-Netanyahu rivals, so unchanged from the last three elections — that the slightest shifts in numbers for small, marginal parties may yet tilt the entire political system one way or the other. For example, if Ra’am passes the vote threshold in the real vote count, a Netanyahu victory likely slips far beyond his grasp.

Yet for all that uncertainty, some important conclusions can be drawn from the initial exit poll numbers that emerged on Tuesday.

Israeli electoral workers at a polling station for people positive for COVID-19, in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on March 23, 2021 (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s big win and bigger loss

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu achieved one major success on Tuesday: Right-wing rebels Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, who just two months ago could have combined their slates’ showing in the polls to form a party larger than Likud, had fallen so steeply by election day that their combined strength is now less than half of Likud’s. A chasm of over 20 seats separates Likud from the parties of either challenger.

That’s an important achievement for Netanyahu. It means neither Bennett nor Sa’ar can make a convincing case that they deserve to replace Netanyahu as prime minister. Through a calculated and disciplined campaign, Netanyahu managed to neutralize the most immediate and serious threat to his continued rule.

It’s important to acknowledge that victory; it is why Tuesday failed to deliver any clear repudiation of the prime minister.

A Likud supporter in front of a video of Benjamin Netanyahu at a party event in Jerusalem on March 23, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But it is equally important to step back and consider the fact that Tuesday also marked a more profound failure for Netanyahu than Likud will admit.

Israel’s economy has just reopened thanks to a world-leading vaccination drive that wouldn’t have happened — or at least not as quickly and comprehensively as it did — without Netanyahu’s leadership. In the year that’s passed since the last election, Netanyahu negotiated four dramatic normalization agreements with previously hostile Arab states.

History was made, lives and livelihoods were saved, and polls showed Israelis were beginning to forgive the government its mismanagement and failures in dealing with the pandemic.

Yet none of those historic accomplishments moved the needle at the ballot box. According to exit polls, every member party in the outgoing government except Shas shrank in size. Likud dropped from 36 seats to 30 or 31. Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in his voter outreach and mobilization efforts, campaigning ferociously for three long months — but ended up right where he started.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market a day before the general elections, on March 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The 61-seat trap

But what if the exit polls are wrong?

What if, despite everything, the initial figures after election day missed a narrow band of pro-Netanyahu voters that end up shifting the real-count results two seats in Likud’s favor and delivering for Netanyahu an outright 61-seat majority?

For Netanyahu that’s almost as disastrous as losing. He will suddenly find himself with a right-religious coalition where every MK — literally every single coalition member — will be able to extort the prime minister on matters of fundamental policy, from the state budget to West Bank settlements to relations with the US and diaspora communities, each time the prime minister needs their vote to pass a budget bill or survive a no-confidence motion.

Add to that ungovernable nightmare the fact that this new coalition includes the Kahanist extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir and anti-LGBT activist Avi Maoz, two representatives of the most radical rightist fringe of Israeli political life whom Netanyahu helped shepherd into parliament, and the “victory” begins to look like a rout.

Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party speaks at the Religious Zionism party’s headquarters in Modi’in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s best hope given Tuesday’s exit poll results is to establish that 61-seat coalition just to prove that he can, and then fish around among opposition lawmakers for defectors who might be willing to cross over to Likud, thereby growing and stabilizing his narrow coalition. It’s a reasonable strategy, but it depends on two things coming true: He must beat the exit polls and win 61 seats, and he must find willing defectors.

Last time, Netanyahu managed to peel none other than his great nemesis Benny Gantz away from the center-left camp in exchange for a rotation deal he never intended to carry out. A year later, that trick won’t work again. His treatment of Gantz makes his search for defectors this time around much more difficult.

Lapid’s strategic humility

As Netanyahu struggles to find a path through the stubborn coalition math, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid experienced his own loss on Tuesday, as well as a victory.

The loss is obvious and uninteresting: Lapid failed to win from the voters a stable ruling coalition. But that was expected; it’s what polls showed going into the race.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and his wife Lihi cast their ballots at a voting station in Tel Aviv on March 23, 2021. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Lapid’s victory, on the other hand, is quite interesting. He entered the race at the helm of the Knesset’s fourth-largest party; he emerges from it leading its second-largest. Along the way, his humble campaign — his refusal to declare himself the next prime minister, his focus on strengthening other parties in the center-left bloc — quietly rehabilitated that shattered camp, pushed numerous endangered parties far above the threshold, and transformed him into the de facto leader of the entire bloc.

Lapid was already the opposition leader in the outgoing Knesset. But that was a technicality, a vestige of the old Likud-Blue and White rivalry.

After the March 2021 election, Lapid has become something more: the key architect of the center-left’s shared electoral strategy — its Netanyahu, if you will.

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