Israeli election briefing

Top strategist: ‘The one thing that could save Netanyahu,’ and 9 other insights

Eyal Arad on who Sa’ar should recruit, why Labor might not be finished… and the fighter jets you don’t see coming

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Minister of Internal Affairs Gideon Sa'ar, in the Knesset, July 9, 2013. (Flash 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Minister of Internal Affairs Gideon Sa'ar, in the Knesset, July 9, 2013. (Flash 90)

Eyal Arad is one of Israel’s most experienced political campaign strategists.

He got his start as Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman when Netanyahu was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1980s, and went on to play a major role in Netanyahu’s first successful campaign for the prime ministership in 1996.

The two men fell out, however, and Arad subsequently worked as a strategist for a succession of Netanyahu’s direct opponents, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni.

In a session organized on Thursday by Media Central, a Jerusalem nonprofit that provides services for journalists, Arad presented a series of insights into the campaigns now getting underway for the March 23, 2021 elections — Israel’s fourth in less than two years.

Eyal Arad (Flash 90)

Here are 10 key points Arad made, summarized and paraphrased, that might be worth bearing in mind as the latest battle to lead Israel unfolds:

1. Netanyahu’s favorability rating is falling, even in Likud. Just like the last three rounds, these elections are in large part a referendum on Netanyahu. Compared to that stark question of yes or no to more Netanyahu, differences on actual policy issues — including on the Palestinians, the pandemic, relations with the US, the economy and more — are relatively narrow across the political mainstream. But while this is a very confused electorate, with no would-be prime minister getting anything close to a 50% approval rating, Netanyahu’s favorability numbers have been declining — by about 15-20% in recent months, even among Likud voters, the core of his base.

Netanyahu is now fighting for his life, with no apparent escape from his corruption trial. As an ordinary MK, even as leader of the opposition, he would have no leverage for a plea bargain, should it come to that.

2. Fighting within the blocs. This will be an election marked more by infighting within the blocs than fighting between left and right. For the first time in Israeli history, as things stand, there is no strong candidate from the center-left, while the right is fracturing, with the emergence of Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett as would-be prime ministers, joining Avigdor Liberman in the “anyone but Bibi” right-wing camp, with others potentially yet to follow.

3. The volatility of the electorate is staggeringly high. Hugely complicating matters for pollsters, an astounding 50% of the electorate is indicating that it’s not sure who it will be voting for. Twenty percent are telling the pollsters they’re undecided. And there’s another 30% who do declare a preference, but add the caveat that they’re not certain. This goes some way to explaining the major fluctuations we’re already seeing, with Bennett’s Yamina declining in a matter of days from 20 seats to 14, after Sa’ar entered the fray. More such wild shifts probably lie ahead. Pollsters’ predictions are therefore even more unreliable than usual.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid-Telem at his office in the Knesset, Jerusalem, on September 14, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

4. Center-left voters “parked” with Sa’ar could yet be wooed back. Labor currently has no hope of making it back into the Knesset — a stunning collapse from the 24 seats it won as the National Union in 2015. But many of those voters are still out there, with broadly the same views, and they’re looking for a home. They backed Benny Gantz’s Blue and White temporarily, they haven’t moved en masse to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and some of them are “parked” for now with Sa’ar. But polling data shows that they don’t particularly like him; rather, they dislike Netanyahu and Sa’ar seems to be the most credible challenger to Netanyahu right now.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai attends the annual international Municipal Innovation Conference in Tel Aviv, on February 19, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

That could change if a serious center-left grouping is formed, including such figures as Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, outgoing Blue and White Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, and former foreign minister Livni. People like this — if they also work with Histadrut labor federation chief Arnon Bar-David — could utilize the Labor party’s still formidable organizational infrastructure, and revive Labor yet.

Then Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni during a faction meeting in the Knesset on July 16, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

What’s significant about this potential development is that it would move seats from right to left, where currently the polls show this to be an election that, unprecedentedly, will basically be fought on the right.

5. Round five?! As the polls stand now, there is emphatically no clear pro-Netanyahu coalition, but also no viable anti-Netanyahu coalition. There is a potential majority of anti-Netanyahu MKs, yes, but they are drawn from all the way across the political spectrum, and will not easily sit together, to put it mildly. And thus, the prospect of a fifth election is an entirely possible scenario.

An ongoing slide in support for Likud, however, could enable the anti-Netanyahu camp to muster a coalition without him. Then Likud would have to choose between sticking with Netanyahu and going into the opposition, or abandoning him. For what it’s worth, internal polling shows former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat to be by far the most popular candidate to succeed Netanyahu as Likud leader.

6. The smell of defeat. For all that Netanyahu’s ratings are in decline, much of the electorate does not perceive an alternative. Netanyahu is the only political heavyweight. Sa’ar, Bennett, Lapid and Liberman all look at each other with a certain disdain. Each thinks of the other as “no better than me.”

Ze’ev Elkin announces his resignation from Likud as he joins Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party, December 23, 2020 (Kan TV screenshot)

Sa’ar is smart and has experience, but lacks charisma and doesn’t generate passion. Ze’ev Elkin, whose resignation speech detailed what he claimed was Netanyahu’s cynical and deliberate resort to both these elections and the last ones, is emphatically no magnet for votes. He came third out of three when he ran for mayor of Jerusalem in 2018. His departure is not an electoral blow — but it is a political blow, adding to the sense of disintegration in Likud, heightening the smell of defeat.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, left, confers with Benjamin Netanyahu, a member of the Israel delegation, prior to the start of the opening session of the Middle East peace conference on October 30, 1991 in Madrid. (AP Photo/Denis Paquin)

7. Netanyahu’s one potential path to salvation. The pandemic will play a potentially central role in the elections, with Netanyahu already stressing his personal role in rapidly securing millions of vaccine doses. The huge concern among voters is over joblessness. Yitzhak Shamir lost the 1992 elections, despite going to the Madrid peace conference and staying out of the first Gulf war, because unemployment was about 12%. It’s higher than that today, and Netanyahu will have to tackle unemployment. If he doesn’t, he is looking at a major defeat not unlike Likud’s collapse to 12 seats in the 2006 elections.

Apropos that, Finance Minister Israel Katz is the least popular minister in the outgoing government. Were Netanyahu to appoint Katz as his campaign chairman, he would be driving right-wing voters to Sa’ar and Bennett. Using his own experience as finance minister, putting together a serious team of economists, Netanyahu’s only chance of victory is to create the sense that he — and only he — can create jobs and tackle unemployment. But, again, I’m not sure even that can save him.

Prof. Gabi Barbash, former director general at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, on April 7, 2020. (Channel 12)

8. Sa’ar’s recruits. To sustain his challenge, Sa’ar needs to do more than simply say Netanyahu has failed. He should come up with a not-too-radical right-wing agenda. And he should bring credible public figures into his party. I don’t know that others in Likud are planning to leave, but Netanyahu dwarfs them all anyway. Were former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot or hospital chief Gabi Barbash to join Sa’ar, that would be much more significant than Likud backbenchers.

9. Don’t partner with your opponents. Ariel Sharon always said “never say never” in politics. As Gantz’s switch — from no to Netanyahu to partnering with Netanyahu — underlines, the fact is that anything goes. But what Gantz’s move, and those of many before him, also shows, is that partnering with your political opponents is the route to disintegration. If Sa’ar wants to build a long-term party, wants to lead a government, and can’t do so after the next elections, he knows the right course would be to go into opposition. But would he and his colleagues be prepared to do that? That’s where ego comes into play.

10. Beware hubris. Netanyahu may yet have rabbits to pull out of the hat. I don’t see them, but as the saying goes in the Israel Air Force, it’s the plane you don’t see that shoots you down.

The first meeting of the new unity government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at the Knesset, May 17, 2020 (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
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