Netanyahu builds momentum in final days of third campaign

March 1, 2020 by Alex Traiman -
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After 11 years of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, many Israelis have claimed that they are tired of Benjamin Netanyahu. Or are they?

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud Party event in Lod, on February 11, 2020. Photo by Flash90

Just days before a third round of national polls in less than one year, the latest pre-election polls show Netanyahu’s Likud surging ahead to a two-seat lead over Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party.

Furthermore, a bloc of right-wing and religious parties that support the centre-right Likud is closing in on a 61-seat majority necessary to govern and effectively end a drawn-out, rinse-wash-repeat election cycle.

By contrast, a bloc of left-wing and secular parties that support Blue and White is polling more than 10 seats short of a parliamentary majority and would have to rely on support from self-described anti-Zionist Arab parties to govern. Arab parties have never joined an Israeli government since the founding of the state. And the Joint Arab List has staunchly opposed the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” vision, a plan that has received initial support from both Netanyahu and Gantz.

If neither a Netanyahu-led bloc nor a Gantz-led bloc can form a parliamentary majority, the two major parties will either be forced to sit together in a unity government or go to the polls yet again in the fall. Meanwhile, Gantz has insisted that he will not cooperate in any government with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s rise in the polls comes just weeks before a trial is set to begin in Jerusalem District Court on three separate corruption cases. That Netanyahu’s popularity has not plummeted in advance of the trials or during a protracted elections cycle remains a testament to his successful record as commander-in-chief of the military, top economist and a diplomat that has made inroads with Arab and African nations.

His high standing in the polls also indicates that many Israelis are not moved by the criminal charges, which include receiving gifts from wealthy friends and attempting to receive better coverage from an otherwise anti-Netanyahu Israeli press.

Yet, perhaps more importantly, after two election cycles where Netanyahu rested on his record, the embattled Likud leader has put on a tour de force over the past two months. After winning a landslide victory in a snap Likud leadership primary, in which former minister Gideon Sa’ar challenged him for party chairmanship, Netanyahu has demonstrated that he is still the best man to lead Israel during tumultuous times.

Advancing the U.S. peace vision, which will shortly enable the Jewish state to formally apply Israeli sovereignty over every Jewish settlement and outpost; pledging to build in the previously disputed Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Givat HaMatos and the controversial E-1 tract between Jerusalem and the large settlement city of Ma’ale Adumim; securing from Russian President Vladimir Putin the pardon and release of Na’ama Issachar, imprisoned during transport from India for flying with a small amount of cannabis; absorbing new members of Ethiopia’s Jewish community; and opening new diplomatic relations with Sudan, Netanyahu has been putting his diplomatic abilities on full display.

In addition, the prime minister has been campaigning around the clock, speaking extemporaneously at multiple large events around the country. The campaign has focused specifically on areas of traditional right-wing support, hoping to drum up natural supporters from an electorate that has grown tired of voting.

He has been demonstrating to his direct Likud supporters, as well as to members of his right-wing and religious party bloc, that after 11 years, he still wants the job more than ever.

By contrast, challenger Benny Gantz has relied primarily on attacking Netanyahu, calling him a liar, accusing him of divisiveness and insisting that Israel cannot have a functioning prime minister who is simultaneously defending himself in court. While Netanyahu is out proving himself a competent prime minister, Gantz’s main selling point is that he is not Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, Gantz has not clearly communicated a political outlook or vision. He claims that he will heal the rifts in Israeli society, yet refuses to sit alongside Israel’s religious parties. And when attempting to communicate with the Israeli public, he has most recently taken to using a teleprompter after demonstrating a difficulty to think and respond quickly on his feet during a campaign filled with rhetorical mishaps.

Most troubling have been revelations that among Gantz’s closest advisers are former adviser to President Barack Obama, Joel Benenson. Both Benenson and another top Gantz adviser have tweeted multiple statements likening U.S. President Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. And in the last week, Blue and White has put up billboards comparing Netanyahu to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an Islamist dictator.

Should Netanyahu and his supporting parties secure a majority of 61 seats, Netanyahu will have pulled off a stunning victory in an environment in which the media, the judicial system and numerous politicians, including former allies, are all pushing relentlessly for his retirement.

And if Netanyahu’s allies fall short of a parliamentary majority, he will continue to lead a transitional government until the electorate can finally sort itself out or the laws on choosing a prime minister are changed. And based on the way Netanyahu has campaigned and advanced the nation’s interests over the past several months without a coalition, perhaps a transitional government is all the embattled prime minister needs to keep going.

Alex Traiman is the managing director and Jerusalem bureau chief of Jewish News Syndicate.

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