Four years ago, Benjamin Netanyahu gave a series of interviews with Israeli media, during the final stages of the election campaign, to assert that his hold on the prime ministership was in danger. He implored all Israelis who wanted to see him retain power to vote for his Likud, and not for any of the other, smaller right-wing parties — infuriating his political allies, notably including the then-Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett.
“Vote Mahal, vote Mahal,” he repeated in interview after interview — referring to the Hebrew letters that signify Likud on the voting slip in polling booths.
What became known as Netanyahu’s “gevalt” tactic worked like a charm. (If it helps, the Yiddish slang dictionary defines Oy Gevalt as similar to “Oy Vey but with a larger sense of doom or fear.”) In the run-up to the 2015 vote, surveys showed the Labor-dominated Zionist Union of Isaac Herzog outscoring Netanyahu’s Likud; in the event, Likud beat Zionist Union by a handy 30 seats to 24. Bennett’s Jewish Home, which had been polling well into double figures, managed only eight seats. Netanyahu was safely returned to office.
By comparison to 2015, however, Netanyahu’s media blitz of the past few days constitutes a veritable “super-gevalt” tactic. Turn on the TV news, the TV chat shows, Hebrew-language radio stations large and small, and numerous other print and internet outlets, and there’s Netanyahu, wailing with what might best be described as controlled hysteria that “we’re on the way to defeat,” Likud rule is “in danger,” and Israel could find itself governed by the “left” — the Blue and White party of his key rivals, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid.
This has created the highly curious situation in which both Netanyahu and Gantz currently assert that Gantz is winning the elections… though neither of them really believes it. (The weekend’s final election surveys showed Blue and White ahead of Likud or neck-and-neck, but with Netanyahu well-placed to form a majority coalition.)
After 13 years in power, the past 10 of them consecutively, Netanyahu is directing his eleventh-hour pitch for another term not at the undecideds and not at those inclining to vote for Blue and White and other centrist or center-left parties, but at his own supporters and those of the rest of the Israeli right. In what amounted to a 16-minute-plus party political broadcast on Army Radio on Monday evening, for instance, he noted that he has been on campaign stops at various fruit and vegetable markets in recent days, generally reliable Likud territory, and been greeted with cries of “Bibi, we support you.” But, he vouchsafed, in several conversations with shoppers and stallholders, they told him that they knew he was going to win, and so they would be “going to the beach” on Tuesday, election day, in what he said was the false, misguided belief that he was a shoo-in.
In fact, Netanyahu claimed very specifically, survey information has shown that “7 percent” of voters who support Likud are inclining not to bother to vote — a stayaway trend, he claimed, that could leave Blue and White outscoring Likud and somehow mustering enough support to cobble together a coalition in his stead. And that, needless to say — but he said it anyway — would spell catastrophe for Israel, since the Blue and White leadership lacked the skills, the wisdom and the tenacity “to stand up for even a minute” in defense of Israel and its interests in this constantly threatening region.
Gantz and Lapid, he asserted disingenuously, had supported the catastrophic Iran nuclear deal (Lapid did not; Gantz was in the IDF when it was negotiated) and members of their party had signed a petition trying to prevent Donald Trump visiting Israel. (This was a reference to a petition calling on Netanyahu not to host then-would-be Republican candidate Trump at the height of his campaign to bar all Muslims from the United States in 2015. The visit did not go ahead. Netanyahu’s office at the time distanced itself from Trump, with officials saying that the prime minister “does not agree with every comment by every candidate.” The petition was signed by 37 MKs, mainly from the opposition, including from Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and one each from the Shas and Kulanu coalition parties.)
Trading on journalists’ understandable desperation to interview him — after four years between elections in which he has barely submitted to rigorous questioning by mainstream local reporters — Netanyahu has been discrediting Hebrew media in the very act of nakedly using it to advance his re-election chances. In the same Army Radio interview — his second of the day with that station — he claimed that Israel’s journalists are part of the plot to ensure his defeat on Tuesday. Reporters have gotten wise to his various tactics for trying to get out the vote, he asserted, and therefore the media this time had hatched a plot — “a bluff” to “anesthetize” the public — to assert that the election was a done deal, that his re-election was secure, and thus defang his last-minute pleadings.
Don’t fall for it, he urged listeners. Go out to vote, he pleaded — “Take your families and children with you” — or the appeasers of the left would come to power. What he was asking was “for the benefit of the Jewish state,” he declared, detailing the sacrifices he and his family have made over the years for the cause — “doing everything, everything, to ensure the future of the people of Israel in its land” — including citing the death of his IDF commander brother Yoni, in the heroic IDF rescue operation at Entebbe in 1976.
“Vote Mahal,” he implored, time after time after time.
Overt election propaganda is supposed to be banned in the final days of the campaign. Netanyahu will presumably be required to pay a fine at some post-election stage. He is emphatically not the only prominent politician who has been propagandizing; he has certainly been doing it more than any other, and been widely indulged.
Targeting the voters of the rightist parties with which you will likely be negotiating a coalition in a matter of days would also generally be considered unacceptable, and Bennett and others on the non-Likud right have been fuming. “We don’t quite understand the rationale behind Netanyahu’s attack on the New Right, of all parties,” lamented Bennett on Monday.
The Shas ultra-Orthodox leader Arye Deri — who has repeatedly pledged his party’s coalition support for “Netanyahu and only Netanyahu” — on Sunday called the prime minister an ingrate, and, on Monday, said he feared his “life’s work” was falling apart before his eyes. “Why is he doing this?” asked Deri. “We were the first to say, ‘Netanyahu, Netanyahu.'”
Neither Bennett’s New Right party nor Shas have been faring too well in the polls, and Netanyahu’s “only Likud” blitz could badly impact them, as well as hurt the troubled center-right Kulanu and the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu parties, possibly even pushing one or more of them beneath the 3.25% threshold for Knesset representation.
Netanyahu claimed in many of his innumerable interviews on Monday that none of the rightist parties would disappear. But then he would say that, wouldn’t he. He can always apologize afterwards, once the votes have all been cast.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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