Dispatch

5 Factors That Will Make or Break Bibi’s Re-Election Chances

The Israeli leader is vying for a fifth term amid corruption allegations.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu points to photos of Likud party members as he delivers a speech during the launch of the Likud party election campaign in Ramat Gan, Israel, on March 4. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu points to photos of Likud party members as he delivers a speech during the launch of the Likud party election campaign in Ramat Gan, Israel, on March 4. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

TEL AVIV, Israel—Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday in elections that are largely a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing policies remain popular but whose leadership style and taint of corruption have disaffected many voters.

Netanyahu is vying for a fifth term in office against former army chief Benny Gantz, a political newcomer whose centrist Blue and White party includes two other former military chiefs and two prominent alumni of Netanyahu’s administration.

Gantz has mounted the most serious challenge to Netanyahu’s rule in more than a decade by focusing mostly on the Israeli leader’s character and avoiding substantive issues. Neither candidate has spent much time discussing how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or what do about Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.

“For the first time in Israeli history, it was a campaign without any substance,’’ said Aviv Bushinsky, a former spokesman for Netanyahu.

Netanyahu maintains broad support despite a decision by Israel’s attorney general in February to indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, subject to a hearing. He has emphasized his vast diplomatic experience and his close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump while portraying Gantz as a closet leftist who lacks the political gravitas required to lead the country.

Gantz and his party have crafted a centrist message on peace and security, with pledges to keep Jerusalem united and to retain Israeli military control over the entire West Bank as part of any agreement with the Palestinians.

Polls suggest that Netanyahu’s Likud party and Blue and White are running neck and neck. However, all of the latest surveys suggest that the prime minister’s current coalition of right-wing and Orthodox parties would win a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats, making him the favorite.

That said, some 6 percent of voters remain undecided. And Israeli pre-election and exit polls have a poor record of predicting the outcome. In 2015, for example, the final polls underestimated Likud’s support by as much as one-third of the final result.

“It’s too close to call,’’ said Eyal Arad, a veteran campaign strategist. “There are too many variables and unknowns.’’

Here are five factors that could determine the winner on election day.

1. Bibi’s base. Netanyahu has spent the final days of the campaign in a push to energize right-wingers and ensure they vote for Likud rather than smaller satellite parties. Part of that push has included a first-ever promise by the prime minister to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank—an appeal to territorial maximalists who oppose compromise with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu is worried that complacency among his base could translate into a second-place finish and give Gantz first crack at trying to build a coalition. The question is: Will hard-line voters believe him or view it as a ploy?

The prime minister’s home-stretch sprint reprises his strategy from the final days of the 2015 campaign, when he vowed not to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state and infamously warned right-wing voters that Arab citizens were headed to the polls in droves. It worked for him four years ago, but some analysts believe the strategy has lost its effect.

2. From Russia with love. In the final weeks of the race, Netanyahu abandoned the campaign trail in Israel for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington.

They were more than photo-ops. At the White House, Trump broke with decades of U.S. policy and signed an executive order recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow last Thursday came a day after Israel’s announcement that the remains of Zechariah Baumel, a soldier missing in action in Lebanon in 1982, had been located and returned home. Putin, whose soldiers recovered Baumel’s remains, sent Netanyahu back to Israel with Baumel’s belongings.

“All of this shows Netanyahu as a capable leader on the international front, which for many Israeli voters is very important,” Arad said. “Even if you don’t like him for the corruption scandals or the socio-economic policy, you have to vote for him because there is no substitute.”

Still, domestic issues have captivated Israelis in this election more than previous ones, including lowering taxes and legalizing marijuana. Netanyahu’s focus on big-picture diplomacy could turn out to be misguided.

3. The swing vote. Blue and White has focused its campaign on wooing moderate right-wing voters. This is a constituency that identifies with Likud but lacks the ideological connection to the Jewish settlements and territorial expansion. Instead, many of these potential swing voters are frustrated with the country’s inflated real estate prices and the corruption allegations against Netanyahu.

If Gantz can pick up a slice of this constituency, it might tip the parliamentary balance in favor of the center-left bloc of parties and away from Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties. Some pollsters believe that Blue and White has already partially succeeded.

Roni Rimon, who worked on Netanyahu’s 2009 campaign, told Israel Radio: “The most important constituency is the soft Likud. … This is the constituency that will determine the fate of the campaign. And both parties are speaking to them.”

4. The Arab vote. Turnout among Israel’s Arab citizens reached a high of 64 percent in 2015 but is projected to drop back into the low to mid-50s, according to a survey by the Israeli coexistence group the Abraham Initiatives and the German pollster Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

The strong showing four years ago reflected excitement about the merger of Arab parties into a unified slate of candidates, dubbed the Joint List, which became the third-largest party in the parliament. Ahead of this election, disagreements over the composition of the slate caused the breakup of the party, stoking frustration with Arab-Israeli political leaders. For this and other reasons, Arab citizens have been debating publicly whether to show up to the polls or boycott the vote.

“The public doesn’t understand this individual interest politics,’’ said Mohammed Dawarshe, a political expert at the Givat Haviva Center for a Shared Society. “There’s a sense of punishment that the community wants to enforce on Arab leadership.”

A low Arab turnout would enhance the influence of right-wing and religious voters on the final balance of power in the government—helping Netanyahu. Alternatively, a high turnout would dilute the strength of those voters.

5. The bubble parties. For smaller Israeli parties, the minimum threshold for winning seats in parliament is 3.25 percent of the total number of valid votes. Due to Israel’s fractured political landscape, there are about eight parties—most of them right-wing—that are teetering and might not make it to parliament.

Votes for parties that fail to surpass the target aren’t counted when figuring the final distribution of seats in parliament. Those wasted right-wing votes could be enough to tilt the election in Gantz’s favor.

Joshua Mitnick is a journalist based in Tel Aviv. Twitter: @joshmitnick

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