Netanyahu needs Lapid as his chief rival, or he’ll really be saying ‘gevalt’

The better the Yesh Atid head does on election day, the more likely Netanyahu is to win; but if Sa’ar leads the anti-Netanyahu bloc, Likud will lose a potent election-day tactic

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

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)
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)

There are certain unwritten rules to Israeli election campaigns, patterns of behavior embedded in the electoral system and in the way Israelis think about their political choices.

One such rule is that voters are pulled toward larger parties as campaigns draw to a close.

Case in point: Over the last two years, Likud and Blue and White have tended to do better on election day, sometimes by as many as four seats, than they did in the last barrages of polls in the final week of the campaign.

It’s not that pollsters underestimated the strength of both parties. Rather it’s that polls, like scientists’ observations of quantum mechanical systems, change the thing they are observing. Many Israelis respond to the polls in the final days of the race with a kind of political triage, prioritizing their broader camp over specific leaders or narrow policy preferences.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv on January 15, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

For example, a great many Israelis voters now believe unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the top priority for getting Israel back on track. There are specific complaints that drive this belief: his divisive campaigning, his corruption indictment, what many view as his prioritizing of his political needs over a budget, or a more effective coronavirus response (a complaint heard often surrounding the lax enforcement of social distancing rules in Haredi towns) and so on. So great is the urgency, these voters feel, that whether he’s replaced by right-winger Gideon Sa’ar or secularist centrist Yair Lapid is a secondary issue.

Sometime around mid-March, as the race enters its final week, these voters will be paying very close attention to the polls. They won’t be asking themselves which party most closely matches their worldview, but which appears most poised to oust Netanyahu. Being perceived as the largest such party could be worth as much as six seats-worth of voters come election day, a huge electoral bonus in what is expected to be a close race.

The same is true on the other side. Netanyahu himself specialized in what Israelis call the “gevalt” campaign, named for the Yiddish cry of despair. That’s when Netanyahu, in the last days of the race, issues frantic warnings — the more frantic and convincingly desperate the better — warning of an impending left-wing victory. It’s a tried-and-true method for drawing right-wing voters who may not like Netanyahu — Naftali Bennett voters, for example — to Likud out of fear that voting for their narrowly preferred brand of rightist could end up leaving the leftists in charge.

As the campaigns come into focus, it’s becoming increasingly clear that that final-week rush of tactical voting is already central to the campaigns of all sides.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (C) attend a ceremony for the arrival of a plane carrying a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech anti-coronavirus vaccine, at Ben Gurion Airport near the Israeli city of Tel Aviv on January 10, 2021. (Motti Millrod/Pool/AFP)

Looking for seats anywhere

If Netanyahu is hoping to use his final-week gevalt campaign, he’ll have a hard time doing it against Gideon Sa’ar, who hails not from the center or left, but from the right.

The prime minister is desperately looking for a push of just a few extra seats. His reliable bloc of parliamentary supporters — Likud, Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the religious-Zionist factions — haven’t won an election in three consecutive races, reaching a high of 58 seats in the past two years, three short of the 61-seat minimum for the slimmest of parliamentary majorities.

That tantalizingly close but maddeningly out of reach vote ceiling explains Netanyahu’s sudden enthusiasm for an Arab vote he has long disparaged in his campaigns. But the Arab vote is too much of a gamble to rely on for the decisive win. There are polls suggesting as many as two seats are in play among Arab voters willing to vote for a ruling party in exchange for the greater attention Netanyahu is promising to their needs. Then again, Arab voters may find it difficult to actually cast a Likud ballot when at the moment of truth, after several years of experiencing the party’s unabashedly anti-Arab campaigns — campaigns for which Netanyahu is now apologizing and insisting were misunderstood.

Thus, getting over the 60-seat hump will likely mean harnessing the gevalt strategy for all it’s worth, and to do that his best-case scenario is, ironically, a strong center-left that will draw votes away from Sa’ar.

Netanyahu wants and needs to be running against Yair Lapid, where all the old rules and final-week advantages apply. He’s hard at work trying to figure out how to make that happen.

For Sa’ar, second is the best

Sa’ar is within reach of victory — but only a certain kind of victory. Even if his stars align perfectly on election day, he won’t find himself leading a large, established anchor party like Likud. He will have only a medium-sized party that must cobble together a coalition with other medium-sized and small parties.

If Netanyahu doesn’t have his assured majority, either because his Likud-Haredi-Smotrich-Bennett coalition doesn’t reach 61 seats or because Bennett decides to try to unseat Netanyahu, then Sa’ar may very well get a crack at forming a coalition, with a fifth election the price of failure.

The coalition pieces will likely be there, and while unwieldy, won’t necessarily be uncomfortable for the parties he needs to come together. There is a great deal of policy overlap between right-wing parties like Sa’ar’s New Hope, Yamina and Yisrael Beytenu, and centrists and leftists like Lapid, Benny Gantz and Ron Huldai’s The Israelis party. That list alone may well have a narrow majority on their own (the combination regularly polls around 60 seats).

And if they appear set to form their coalition, there’s little doubt in the political system that Haredi factions Shas and UTJ will be knocking down their door trying to join.

Gideon Sa’ar gives a press conference as he meets with several hospital directors at their protest tent outside the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem demanding more funding, on January 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Sa’ar’s best-case scenario, then, is as the leader of the second-largest party, emerging as the agreed-upon alternative to Netanyahu, and finding himself at the helm of a coalition that could easily grow to include as many as 75 seats.

Everything for Sa’ar depends on three critical elements: He must draw just enough right-wing voters from Likud to deny Netanyahu his 61-seat rightist majority, reach election day as the largest non-Likud faction in polls, assuring him the dramatic boost of tactical anti-Netanyahu voters, and maintain sufficient right-wing bone fides throughout the race to dampen Netanyahu’s inevitable effort at a last-minute gevalt campaign.

Lapid’s bitter paradox

Barring dramatic shifts in the polls, Lapid, even as head of the largest faction to the left of Likud, has no pathway to the prime minister’s office.

It’s a cruel paradox: If he reaches election day as the second-largest party, and thus the most viable alternative to Netanyahu, he becomes the de facto leader of the very same anti-Netanyahu coalition described above — and Netanyahu gets his election-day gevalt campaign about the left being poised to win.

Sa’ar’s coalition is more plausible for the simple fact that the Haredi parties are capable of abandoning Netanyahu’s side to help stabilize a Sa’ar-led coalition. Not so for Lapid. His secularist priorities will grate against Haredi political interests and the Haredi street.

Shas and UTJ might leave Netanyahu for Sa’ar. When it comes to Lapid, they’re quite likely to prefer the opposition in the hopes of quickly destabilizing the Lapid-led government.

United Torah Judaism lawmakers, including MK Moshe Gafni, second left, visit Safed Mayor Shuki Ohana for an election campaign event of the Degel Hatorah faction, in the northern Israeli city of Safed, February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Netanyahu is famously adept at interfering in the political fortunes of the right, as in Tuesday’s Jewish Home primary. He is not so adept when it comes to the center and left, where his promises of future ministerial posts and other boons generally fall on deaf ears.

But Netanyahu eagerly hopes for unity on the center-left, for Huldai and Gantz and others to fold into Lapid and help pull Yesh Atid out from behind Sa’ar’s shadow.

If they don’t, come spring he may find himself in the opposition railing against a Prime Minister Sa’ar.

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