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Analysis13 days to Election Day

In final push, Netanyahu and Lapid turn on their own camps

There’s a cruel irony to this election: To win, each leader must cannibalize his own camp. But go too far and you hand the election to the other side

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) shakes hands with Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, in the Knesset plenum, October 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) shakes hands with Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid party, in the Knesset plenum, October 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

At a campaign stop in the northern town of Tiberias on Tuesday, Aryeh Deri, Israel’s interior minister and head of the Shas political party, made a surprising vow to anyone who votes for him: He will back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more surely and more consistently than any other party or faction — more, in fact, than Netanyahu’s own Likud.

“If you vote Likud,” Deri warned, “it’s not certain that after the election a few [Likud MKs] won’t defect to a different party. In Shas I can guarantee that no one will defect to anyone else. Shas is a sure thing. A vote for Shas is a guaranteed vote for Netanyahu.”

It was a strange campaign promise for a party that — not to put too fine a point on it — has historically sat in coalitions with the left and center, and is expected by just about all observers to be preparing to do so again if Netanyahu doesn’t have the coalition numbers after election day to remain prime minister.

In its very strangeness, it opens a window into the four-dimensional chess, the Escher-esque contortions, that Israeli political campaigns are made of.

Deri

Aryeh Deri speaking at a Shas party event in Tiberias, March 9, 2021. (Channel 12)

Aryeh Deri has a problem that can be summed up in two words: Benjamin Netanyahu.

Two months ago, Netanyahu’s Likud was running an upbeat campaign focused on the vaccination campaign and national unity, a campaign that sought to unify the broader pro-Netanyahu camp and push it over the 61-seat threshold to become, for the first time in two years, a parliamentary majority.

In his race toward that majority, Netanyahu engineered the union of Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit on his rightist flank to ensure neither party fell below the 3.25 percent vote threshold and lost tens of thousands of voters for the right. He produced a new loyalty pledge that he asked Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism to sign on to — as a signal to right-wing challenger Gideon Sa’ar that he won’t be able to rely on the Haredi parties to piece together a coalition without Netanyahu. (The Religious Zionism party, incidentally, refused to sign, explaining that it wasn’t sure Netanyahu would be loyal to it when the time came.)

It was a unifying campaign that held no downsides for Shas or its leader Deri.

That was then. Likud is now already several weeks into a very different sort of campaign.

Election campaign billboards for the Likud party, showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Bnei Brak, March 1, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“If you vote for any other party,” Netanyahu says in campaign videos now circulating on social media, “you’ll get Lapid as prime minister,” a reference to Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, the largest party on the center-left.

Don’t vote for other right-wing parties, the Likud campaign now declares, because only a vote for Likud itself will ensure a Netanyahu-led government.

It’s a campaign that seeks to establish Lapid as Netanyahu’s chief challenger, to create a sense of a right-left contest in order to mobilize right-wingers — especially right-wingers in anti-Netanyahu parties like Sa’ar’s New Hope and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina — to overlook their distaste for Netanyahu and vote Likud. As many as four seats’ worth of prospective Sa’ar voters, Likud believes, want Netanyahu out of office, but not at the cost of a broader right-wing rout at the ballot box and the rise of a center-left government.

The campaign has grown more intense in recent days, because Sa’ar and Bennett voters have proven more stubborn than expected.

A January 5 poll by Channel 12 showed Sa’ar as the second-largest party after Likud in polls, with 19 seats to Lapid’s 14. By March 4, the two parties had switched positions, with Sa’ar down to 12 and Lapid soaring to 20. A Channel 13 poll on Tuesday gave Sa’ar just 9 seats.

But there’s a catch for Netanyahu: Sa’ar is shedding seats, Lapid is rising quickly — but Netanyahu’s coalition hasn’t yet broken the 61-seat ceiling in most polls.

Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope political party at Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv Promenade, overlooking the Old City, February 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

That is, Sa’ar’s centrist voters are leaving for Lapid. His rightist voters do not appear to be similarly rushing to Netanyahu.

That fact has lit a fire under the Likud campaign. To weaken Sa’ar further and push the Netanyahu-led coalition over the 61-seat line, Likud’s campaign has made the focus-on-Lapid strategy its central message. (This turn was, it must be said, predictable and indeed predicted. It’s a classic Likud gambit known as a “gevalt” campaign.)

But there’s a catch for Likud in the new emphasis. Other right-wing parties, parties Netanyahu needs if he is to win the race in 13 days’ time, are also feeling the pressure.

Shas, for example, has dropped a seat or two over the past month of polling, from eight and nine seats in the last three elections to seven in recent weeks. An outlier poll on Tuesday gave it just six. Shas can ill afford a two-week Likud blitz up to election day that drives its most avid Netanyahu supporters over to Likud.

And so Deri, seated among friends and supporters in Tiberias, must assure his voters that a vote for him is not only a vote for Netanyahu — it’s a safer vote for Netanyahu than an actual vote for Netanyahu.

Supporters of the Shas party react after TV exit polls are announced in the Israeli general election, September 17, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Smotrich

For Netanyahu, if not for Deri, Shas’s predicament is a relatively harmless one. From Netanyahu’s perspective the calculus is simple: Escalate the campaign against Sa’ar and let the Shas campaign fight to keep its voters in-house. As long as Shas stays well above the 3.25 percent threshold (worth 3.9 seats), there’s no harm to Netanyahu if a Shas voter switches to Likud.

But the quandary gets harder in the case of Religious Zionism, which was already hovering just above the threshold before the new Likud campaign, and has begun to poll just below the threshold in some polls.

If Religious Zionism drops below the line, a pro-Netanyahu parliamentary majority may become unattainable.

Religious Zionism is thus more vulnerable to the Likud campaign — and also more hemmed in by other opponents. It must contend with Netanyahu’s call to switch to Likud even as it is beset by two separate and intense campaigns from Yamina and United Torah Judaism to draw away its voters and drive it under the threshold.

Early this week, United Torah Judaism announced the establishment of a new campaign team charged with targeting Chabad Hasidim, a group of traditional UTJ voters now seen leaning heavily toward Religious Zionism — specifically drawn to the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction in that alliance.

United Torah Judaism party headquarters in Jerusalem on March 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

UTJ’s effort is led by MK Meir Porush, the deputy education minister. It drafted Chabad Hasidim and is systematically visiting Chabad communities around the country with its message.

What’s the message? How does one compete with the far-right nationalism of the Kahanists of Otzma Yehudit? UTJ now insists it prevented the implementation of the Trump peace plan, thereby preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state in part of the West Bank.

“When [Donald Trump’s] ‘Deal of the Century’ was put on the agenda,” the party said this week in a statement announcing the new team, “it was Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush who stood at the Knesset podium, cried out [against the plan] and brought the words of the Rebbe [Chabad’s iconic late leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson].

“Porush carried out the deep study that revealed for the first time the 16 settlements that would become outlying outposts beyond the borders of the country, and the information was brought to American government officials,” the statement said. It was Porush who forced “Netanyahu to understand that he didn’t have 61 MKs to pass the ‘Deal of the Century,’ so he abandoned this folly.”

Shortly after the launch of the new campaign, a series of videos against Religious Zionism appeared online that, in violation of election laws, bore no party’s name.

One video warned ominously, against a background of flames, that the far-right Otzma Yehudit and its predecessor parties going back as far as 2003 regularly fell below the vote threshold and “burned your vote.”

Screenshot from an unsourced campaign video targeting the Religious Zionism party, taken March 9, 2021. The text reads, “Will you let them burn your vote this time?” (Twitter screen capture)

“Will you let them burn your vote this time?” it asked against a background image of Religious Zionism’s leaders Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.

Religious Zionism officials suspect UTJ is behind the campaign, though some blame was also directed at Yamina.

There’s a concerted effort to push Religious Zionism below the threshold, and it’s coming from parties competing with it for overlapping electorates. The pro-Netanyahu camp is bickering among its member parties, and may cost Netanyahu the victory.

Lapid

Then there’s Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid.

Lapid has said he’s open to including the Arab-majority Joint List in a future coalition — and this week suggested his two possible future partners, Bennett and Sa’ar, would also find their way to a coalition with the Joint List. He dismissed Bennett’s and Sa’ar’s claims to the contrary as electioneering bluster.

Sheets of newly printed ballots seen at the Palphot printing house in Karnei Shomron, in preparation for Israel’s upcoming general elections, March 9, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

It was a statement no less surprising than Deri’s about disloyal Likudniks. It was a statement born, like Deri’s, in a predicament.

Lapid cannot become prime minister if he isn’t backed by a broad and diverse political coalition committed to removing Netanyahu from office. But he doesn’t necessarily need both edges of that anti-Netanyahu camp, both Bennett and Sa’ar on one side and the Joint List on the other. The polls allow for a Lapid-Sa’ar-Bennett coalition without the Joint List.

So why make a public assertion about Sa’ar and Bennett that plays right into Likud’s campaign against the two and will inevitably hurt them at the ballot box?

Lapid is currently the second-largest party after Likud, after a steady climb over the past two months past Sa’ar’s New Hope.

But that’s not enough to ensure that Lapid is the unassailable leader of the anti-Netanyahu camp after election day — to ensure, that is, that Lapid, and not Bennett or Sa’ar, gets the chance to form the government if Netanyahu fails.

Yair Lapid, left, speaking with Merav Michaeli during a plenum session in the Knesset on June 5, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

If Netanyahu doesn’t have a 61-seat majority after election day, then Bennett and Sa’ar are believed to be considering uniting their lists to form a single faction that will be larger than Yesh Atid and able to claim leadership of the anti-Netanyahu coalition.

Lapid, recently polling as high as 20 seats, needs to shrink the combined figure for Sa’ar and Bennett below Yesh Atid’s total to prevent that outcome. And so he finds himself assuring voters that, like him, rightists Sa’ar and Bennett would be willing to serve in a coalition with the Joint List.

It’s a dangerous gambit: Driving some Sa’ar-Bennett voters back to Netanyahu in a bid to be at the top of the heap of a camp that will now find it that much harder to defeat Netanyahu.

It’s a mirror image of Netanyahu’s predicament across the aisle. Netanyahu’s bid to bring seats to his camp by warning about Lapid as prime minister may end up pushing other seats out of his camp. Lapid’s bid to ensure that the center-left, and not merely a different version of the right, leads the anti-Netanyahu camp may drive the very seats rightward that Netanyahu needs to win outright.

It’s the cruel irony at the heart of this strange election, the needle each candidate must thread: As they cannibalize their own camps in a frantic bid for victory, each candidate knows that if they go too far, they will be the architects of their own loss.

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