With court of public opinion decided, Netanyahu trial no longer campaign fodder

By now, few will be swayed by the premier’s graft cases, so parties are focusing on his handling of the pandemic instead, as polls show that tiny moves can trigger tectonic shifts

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one of them. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021. Netanyahu is charged with fraud and breach of trust in three cases and bribery in one of them. (Reuven Kastro/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial resumed on Monday, flooding the news cycle with detailed reports from the Jerusalem courtroom. Broadcasts and news sites brimmed with prognostications from pundits and experts, as well as detailed quotes from defense lawyers and prosecutors.

But outside the TV news cycle and the live-tweeted play-by-plays from reporters, the event registered little public attention. The dueling protests for and against the prime minister outside the Jerusalem District Court were sparse to nonexistent. A small protest was held against Netanyahu, while the area assigned by police to the prime minister’s backers was nearly empty, presumably in part because of Netanyahu’s public call on Sunday for his supporters not to congregate and risk spreading the coronavirus.

Even those running to unseat Netanyahu took little notice of the trial. Yesh Atid, Labor, and Meretz dialed down the rhetoric. New Hope called it a “sad” day, but leader Gideon Sa’ar said in a statement that “this is an issue that politicians from both sides have no need to comment on.” Let the wheels of justice turn unencumbered by politics, the party said.

Indeed, it was only in Likud, and only among backbenchers eager to be seen supporting their party leader, that one encountered any real noise: May Golan, Osnat Mark, Miki Zohar, Shlomo Karhi, a veritable rogue’s gallery of reliable headline-making rabble-rousers, did not disappoint.

The general indifference is important. One cannot understand the current state of Israeli politics without grasping why no one seems to think a corruption trial against a sitting prime minister is an easy way to score some campaign points.

The simplest reason is the sheer amount of time Israelis from all across the political spectrum have had to get used to the idea. The Netanyahu case has been in the news cycle for the better part of five years. Any political fallout is already baked into the views, poll responses, and voting calculations on all sides.

Many Netanyahu supporters agree with his claim that he is being unfairly targeted by a politicized prosecution. Many others believe that the advantages he brings as a leader far outstrip any possible malfeasance claimed in the indictment.

A pair of recent polls showed that up to 54 percent of Israelis think he’s the best prime ministerial candidate, and 56% think he is letting his legal troubles guide the pandemic fight. That means that at least 10% (give or take due to margins of error and other factors) potentially support the prime minister even if he is prioritizing legal immunity over viral immunity.

Protesters march against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in Jerusalem, February 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On both sides of the Netanyahu-not Netanyahu divide, the number of voters who could potentially be swayed by his corruption trial may be too small to base a campaign on.

Going viral

Those seeking to unseat Netanyahu must therefore conduct their campaign on a different plane altogether.

Three new indicators this week made clear that Netanyahu enjoys a credibility advantage – not in the sense that Israelis generally believe him to be honest (they don’t), but in the sense that many Israelis believe him to possess a basic competence and seriousness as a leader that’s not present among his rivals.

Those strengths include a reputation for insight and experience on the global stage, a grasp of the importance of history and grand strategy, the ability to absorb vast amounts of information and formulate a coherent response to complex policy challenges.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow, on January 30, 2020. (Maxim Shemtov/Pool/AFP)

Many Israelis (more on the numbers below) believe that where it matters — on Iran and Gaza, on dealings with the world powers, on questions of macroeconomics and fiscal policy — a thoughtful and experienced hand is on the tiller.

That Netanyahu doesn’t always prioritize those skills in his management of national affairs is, to his supporters, beside the point. In Israel’s coalition system, where power is shared among diverse factions and compromises are the order of the day, no prime minister can set policy in a focused and consistent way on all fronts.

Then came the coronavirus. Here more than on any other issue, his rivals believe they have found Netanyahu’s weakness, the chink in his armor of competence, the evidence that there’s more marketing than truth behind his reputed policy prowess. Here his seriousness and leadership, his prioritizing of the nation’s interests over his own political needs, has been tested in real-time, and, his critics believe, has found the renowned Netanyahu sorely wanting.

The public seems to agree. In a survey last week by the polling firm Midgam, Israelis were asked how they “assess the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.” It wasn’t close. Fully 61% of Israelis said it was bad, either “somewhat bad” (27%) or “very bad” (34%). Just 35% said it was good, with 29% choosing “somewhat good” and a mere 6% saying “very good.”

The answers are strongly influenced by political affiliation. On the self-described right, the bad-good divide was 48%-49%. Among the self-described center-left, a lopsided 80%-19%.

Hospital staff wearing safety gear work in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, on February 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud’s campaign has tried to build on Netanyahu’s longstanding reputation for competence, and his opponents are campaigning on the faltering of that reputation amid the pandemic. The question over whether Netanyahu is handling the pandemic well has become the heart of the campaigns of Likud’s three biggest rivals: New Hope, Yamina, and Yesh Atid.

The dueling messaging is clear enough in campaign circulars. While a Likud poster shows Netanyahu alongside other party leaders with the slogan “Many politicians, one leader,” ads from New Hope and Yamina respectively promise to “replace this chaotic government,” and “put things in order.”

Head to head

Netanyahu has been maddeningly unable to punch past the 61-seat mark of a Knesset majority for two years now, staying in power by a chaotic rejiggering of Israeli constitutional rules and, it must be said, a willingness to hamper the normal functioning of government and freeze the state budget in order to avoid handing the baton of power to his opponents.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a protest against the state’s intention to close the Hilla Project, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on August 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday, a poll by the Panels Politics firm for radio station 103 FM highlighted that deadlock with the finding that Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism – the right-religious bloc considered safely in Netanyahu’s camp – would win 49 seats if the election were held this week. Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, a swing vote on the question of who will be Israel’s next prime minister, won 11 seats. The bloc Netanyahu hopes for, then, clocks in at exactly 60 seats, while parties vehemently opposed to Netanyahu — New Hope, Yesh Atid, the Joint List, Israel Beytenu, Labor, Blue and White, and Meretz — also took 60.

Two center-left parties – Blue and White and Meretz – hover just above the threshold. So does Religious Zionism on the right. The race is so closely deadlocked that it may well be decided by the tiniest of shifts in voter turnout for one of those marginal parties, pushing one or the other out of the next Knesset.

But there’s another finding in the poll that reveals something important about what Israelis think about the race beyond the narrow scope of party affiliation.

The poll asked respondents to pretend that they were voting in a direct race for the premiership, pitting Netanyahu head-to-head against his self-declared challengers Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar, and Yair Lapid.

The upshot: Netanyahu wins in every case – even drawing the support of one in every five self-described center-left voters.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid at a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on April 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The obvious must be said: Outside of a short period in the 1990s when Israeli election law was changed, Israel’s electoral system doesn’t pit individuals against each other in this way. But the question helps gauge public support for a candidate unmediated by voters’ divisions into party lists.

So it matters that Netanyahu beats Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid 54 percent to 37% — finally garnering the outright majority he can’t seem to win in the party-list vote. It’s revealing, too, that 18% of self-described right-wingers in such a race would vote for Lapid (75% for Netanyahu), and 21% of self-described center-left voters would vote Netanyahu (and 66% for Lapid).

Netanyahu beats Bennett 43% to 35%, a narrower gap that reflects the narrower 55%-33% race on the right in favor of Netanyahu. Among the center-left, Bennett’s decidedly rightist views weaken him. Those who would vote Bennett (38%) are equal in number to those who said they “don’t know” who they’d vote for (38%). Netanyahu wins 24% among them.

It’s New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar who gives Netanyahu the toughest challenge, though Netanyahu still edges out in front. Netanyahu wins by 45%-41%, with more than a two-to-one advantage on the right (62%-29%).

The numbers help explain Sa’ar’s strength, which seems to draw on the advantages of both Bennett and Lapid. In a head-to-head against Netanyahu, he draws about 11 points’ worth of right-wingers that Lapid can’t draw, and he wins an almost identical victory as Lapid among the center-left: 60% to Netanyahu’s 19%.

Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope party, at an election campaign tour in Raanana, February 8, 2021. (Flash90)

Like Netanyahu, Sa’ar’s party-list support is lower than the support he’d win in a direct vote, in part because he’s viewed as a viable alternative to the premier among center-left voters who vote for the liberal parties.

Turnout burnout

If the majority of polls bear out on election day, Israel may be headed to yet another deadlocked election. Barring Naftali Bennett’s abandonment of Netanyahu – not an impossible scenario, but also not an assured one – neither Netanyahu nor any of his challengers have an obvious path to victory.

But there’s another factor that could turn the race, and it goes against Netanyahu.

The prime minister maintains his grip on the right even against Sa’ar, his toughest right-wing challenger. But there’s growing evidence of disenchantment with him among that supportive base. The polls suggest the base is unlikely to abandon him for another candidate, but it could stay home on election day. In a close race, even a small dropoff in turnout could mean a dramatic shift at the ballot box.

Then-public security minister Gilad Erdan, accompanied by Likud activists, makes a campaign stop at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, on September 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A poll by the Maagar Mohot firm for right-wing Channel 20 published Tuesday suggests Netanyahu has cause for concern.

The poll shows the same close race as the previous day’s 103 FM poll: A 60-seat right-religious coalition for Netanyahu, yet again just short of a majority.

But it also finds Likud voters much less sure they’ll be voting this time around than voters for other key parties.

The poll found that 67% of Yesh Atid and New Hope voters said they were “certain” they would be voting on March 23, and an even higher 75% among those who plan to vote Labor, likely reflecting newfound optimism over the party’s prospects under new party leader Merav Michaeli.

Among Likud voters, the figure was just 53%.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is flanked by Likud lawmakers at the party’s post-election event in Tel Aviv, on March 2, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

An optimistic interpretation might suggest that Likud has lots of room to grow. A smart campaign has the potential to decisively increase Likud’s ballot-box showing. A pessimistic view would argue that, as with the corruption trial, all the rhetorical and marketing flourishes are already baked into the current behaviors.

Voters are headed to the polls for the fourth time in two years. What are they going to hear in the next 42 days that they haven’t heard in the last 777 days since the 20th Knesset voted to dissolve itself on December 26, 2018, sparking the first of four nearly back-to-back elections? It’s just as likely that no gimmick or marketing slogan will change the disaffection some in Likud now seem to feel.

All these findings assemble themselves into a simple insight. The election is a referendum on Netanyahu, but Israelis have bigger worries than his trial. Anyone trying to read the tea leaves of the election would be wise to generally ignore the trial, even if it returns regularly to the headlines and drives the news cycle. The voters are ignoring it, and so are the politicians (as always, with the exception of backbench Likudniks).

It’s the pandemic and the government’s often flailing response to it that could decide the election. The decisive shifts will be small. A single-digit drop in Likud turnout could decide the race. So could a two-seat rally for left-wing Labor and Meretz that holds both above the threshold while driving Religious Zionism below it.

Those narrow margins suggest the opposite is also true: A better campaign on either side could make all the difference.

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