Monday, March 4, 2019

Netanyahu's test: Saving the right-wing bloc - Yehuda Shlezinger

by Yehuda Shlezinger

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's main concern is not the rise of the Left but the potential defection of Likud supporters to small right-wing parties that may not cross the electoral threshold.

The social justice protest in 2011 was among the most important and effective protests in Israel. It lasted eight weeks and got flattering nonstop coverage that ultimately changed the entire discourse on socio-economic issues.

Fast-forward to November 2016, when the first protesters started to picket Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit's home in Petach Tikva. The more than 100 weeks of protests were broadcast on Facebook and shared on various social media and became part and parcel of Israelis' discourse.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's investigations have become a constant fixture in our news cycle for the past two years. Hardly a day goes by without the affairs getting splashing headlines. Every testimony is transcribed in full, every development gets its own infographic, every champagne bottle and cigar Netanyahu supposedly got as a gift gets large pictures and price tags printed next to them.

And on top of that, there are the embarrassing audio recording with Netanyahu's family members and the nonstop leaks from every meeting he may have had with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Noni Mozes. This, in short, is what every Israeli has had to deal with over the past 100 weeks: nonstop trash talk against Netanyahu.

The most burning question these days is whether Mendelblit's decision to summon Netanyahu for a pre-indictment hearing will affect his electoral chances. Right now, Netanyahu's Likud party is polling at around 30 seats. This suggests that Netanyahu's voters have so far stuck with him despite the decision.

There is talk in recent days of the so-called "soft right" moving away from Netanyahu because Mendelblit's damning report from Thursday in which he outlined Netanyahu's conduct and laid the groundwork for a possible indictment. But will they now choose to support the centrist parties and the Left or will they instead vote for another right-wing party? The answer is pretty clear.

The exit polls in 2015 showed a de facto tie between Netanyahu's Likud and the Left's Zionist Union, but after all the votes came in, Netanyahu increased his lead substantially. Election Day 2015 was the "day of infamy" for pollsters. People blamed this on pundits preferring to stay inside the studio rather than hearing what voters had to say.

In this election, the studios have become part of the campaign. The dramatic live broadcasts with the pundits who talk and talk on screen are already considered by right-wing voters to be part of the ongoing witch hunt against Netanyahu that has generated nothing but antagonism and may result in people voting for Netanyahu just for spite.

After a turbulent political weekend, the Likud has shifted its focus from Netanyahu's legal woes to saving the small right-wing parties that are on the verge of extinction.

For the first time in this election campaign, polls show the Likud may not be able to form a coalition in the Knesset, in part because those small parties won't pass the threshold and their votes would be thrown away. There is a real danger that Netanyahu and the Likud may overperform at the expense of those parties and as a result, he won't be able to form a right-wing coalition.

Netanyahu's campaign strategy is simple: Attack Mendelblit for bowing to the protesters' pressure, vow that the allegations will be debunked in the pre-indictment hearing, attack the media as trying to deny the voters the right to elect their leader and attack Blue and White leader Benny Gantz as a lefty.

But his real challenge is making sure all right-wing parties cross the electoral threshold. Therein lies the dilemma: How do you run a campaign in which you have to be careful not to be too successful? How do you make people vote for you but also for your right-wing rival? We will find out in the coming weeks whether this is possible.

Yehuda Shlezinger


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