BOTH of the top players still have everything to play for as Israel’s voters prepare to go to the polls on Tuesday, to decide what is still a neck-and-neck race.
Benny Gantz’s brand new Blue and White Party, which is determined to bring the Bibi era to an end, is polling at around 30 seats, just like the Bibi-led Likud.
As they scramble for every possible vote, they have gone all out, resorting to personal attacks and accusing each of other of foul play.
From day one it was clear we were embarking on the most dramatic election campaign of recent years. And by the end it wasn’t only dramatic, but also dirty, with the sides competing on who can shine the spotlight on more dirt relating to their opponent.
This week, things went into overdrive. Likud mocked Gantz’s party after recordings surfaced in which he indicates he has reservations about other senior figures in his party. And Blue and White accused Likud of trying to “steal” the election. This accusation followed a watchdog’s claim that hundreds of online profiles – some of them apparently fake – have been manipulated to disseminate false information in support of the Bibi campaign.
Voters will be weighing this latest dirt-dishing, asking who comes out of it better. And they will be making decisions based on a range of other issues that have dominated campaigning season here.
In a sense, it has felt more like a referendum fight than an election campaign. The question: To Bibi or not to Bibi? Should Netanyahu stay or should he go?
The impetus that led to the establishment of Blue and White is simply that Netanyahu should go. The politicians of Blue and White span a broad ideological spectrum, and it’s unlikely they would have united were it not for the common desire to rid Israel of Bibi.
For Netanyahu, the idea of a personal referendum is attractive. After all, if the public endorses him despite his legal woes, he will interpret it as his ultimate crowning as king of Israel politics.
He has cleverly ensured that Israelis feel if they’re voting for him, they’re voting for a package deal: Bibi plus his friends in high places. Throughout the election drive he has sent out a strong message that he’s the only Israeli who can leverage important relationships in the international arena.
It is a narrative he has told in words and pictures, tours and tweets, selfies and statements. Just this week he took Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro to the Western Wall, for a tour that symbolised the growing international acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem that has been secured in the Bibi era. This visit came on the heels of a similar Bibi-led visit by the US Secretary of State. Whether the timing was coincidental or Netanyahu was calling in favours from friends, this generated campaigning gold dust for Likud.
One of his campaign posters was simply a selfie of him and Donald Trump with a caption saying their closeness puts Bibi in a league of his own. As if to drive the point home Trump retweeted Bibi’s tweet of the billboard. In the final stretch of the campaign season, Trump made a major gesture to Israel, recognising its sovereignty over the Golan. The Likud campaign was jubilant – another international coup to chalk up to the Bibi era.
But despite the positive vibes from some foreign countries, Netanyahu has been fighting with a nightmare scenario on his hands at home. The Attorney-General announced mid-campaign that he wants to indict him in three cases of alleged corruption. Then, new claims of corruption surfaced in relation to how Israel came to buy expensive submarines, and Blue and White accused him of personally profiting.
Likud has fought scandal with scandal. It emerged that Gantz’s phone was hacked. Netanyahu asked what compromising information the Iranians now have on Gantz, inferring he would be a security risk as PM as he could be blackmailed by Tehran. There’s no evidence that any such compromising information exists but the claim has been enough to grab headlines.
Ideology will be in the mix on Tuesday when people cast their votes. We haven’t seen the old right-left choice, with rightists facing off against a left that is full of enthusiasm and excitement about a peace deal with the Palestinians. But we have seen battlelines being drawn between Likud which is branding itself as proudly “right”, and Blue and White, which is cautiously open to peace talks.
The term “right” has become a major marketing phrase in this election. Netanyahu dismisses opponents as “leftists” and says that only he can represent the “right”. Education Minister Naftali Bennett bolted the national-religious Jewish Home party to set up his own faction and call it New Right. And the party he left made a unity pact with followers of the late controversial rabbi Meir Kahane and called their party a unity alliance of the “right”.
Parties on the other side of the map haven’t in general given a similar embrace to the term “left”, with strategists saying that it scares voters. But they have raised difficult questions about how far the right is prepared to go to perpetuate its world view. With huge billboards Blue and White is presenting the deal with Kahanists, which was masterminded to a large degree by Netanyahu, as discrediting the right.
When you are following the election, watch out for how these themes play out. Expect last-minute mud slinging across party lines. Expect the right to fly its flag to get every potential voter out to polling booths. And expect more international gestures.
If Blue and White wants a final boost to its popularity it could end up nixing the arrangement that would make Gantz give up the post of PM after two-and-a-half years and hand the premiership to his ally Yair Lapid. It is predicted that this could win over some voters who are reticent about Lapid.
Finally, expect an interesting exchange on the theme that often makes or breaks political ambitions: security.
In past elections, voters have become nervous, especially in the final moments, about abandoning Netanyahu because he successfully branded himself as Mr Security and said that others can’t compete with his expertise.
Israelis said to themselves that they may want a change but not enough to experiment with their security. This time they have the option of Blue and White with three former military chiefs of staff – Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Moshe Yaalon who was defence minister as well as head of the military. If anyone can convince Israelis that a change doesn’t mean a security risk, it’s them. Or is Bibi just too bulletproof?