In Israel, Maybe the 4th Time Will Be the Charm?


Inspired by the recent Academy Awards, Israel’s political satire show “Eretz Nehederet” last week decided to give prizes for what it joked was the country’s strongest business of late: the elections industry.

The show, which translates (tongue planted firmly in cheek) as “Wonderful Country,” awarded its “short movie” prize to Benjamin Netanyahu for his so-called “Annexation Story.” Riffing on the 1990s animated blockbuster “Toy Story,” it was a reference to the prime minister’s short-lived plan to announce an annexation of part of the West Bank after the unveiling of President Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

The upcoming election, in a season of endless elections, has become a national joke.

Ahead of a March 2 vote, the third in less than a year, opinion polls resemble assembly line widgets — the changes in the results seem barely perceptible with every new batch. That suggests continued political deadlock, with neither major political bloc having enough seats to command a majority in the 120-seat parliament — and the surreal possibility of a fourth election.

“I don’t know one person who is changing their vote from the last time,” said Jeremy Saltan, a consultant to the campaign of the Modern Orthodox, pro-settler Yamina Party.

Out in the streets, election banners are rare, a striking contrast from elections of years past, in which posters from rival parties were replaced every few days by armies of dedicated field workers. Instead of election coverage, stories about the coronavirus and the Israelis trapped on a cruise ship docked in Japan led the news channels.

“If someone would land here from outside of Israel, you wouldn’t be able to tell there’s an election campaign,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American political pollster. “I haven’t been invited to any parlor meetings.”

Many Israelis say they have grown weary from the repeated campaign cycles. As he picked through apples and pears in a stall at Tel Aviv’s Carmel market, Shlomo Frieyfel, a 72-year-old retiree who has voted Likud in the past, said he had a mind to stay home this time.

“We’re fed up!” he said. “I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to vote. For what? All they argue about is how to get money. People can’t afford to pay for their medicines.”

Neither Netanyahu’s impending corruption trial, scheduled to start two weeks after the election, nor Trump’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan have budged public opinion surveys. The centrist Blue and White party, led by former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, and Netanyahu’s Likud are within one to three seats of each other. In most polls, Blue and White has held the advantage.

Likewise, nearly every election poll suggests that neither a centrist bloc nor Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc would command a majority in the parliament.

Despite hailing President Trump’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace as a “historic” opportunity for Israel to declare sovereignty over the Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley, Netanyahu hasn’t received a bump. Campaign ads implore listeners that, after working with Trump to write the plan, only he can work with the U.S. to carry it out.

But, says Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, “Netanyahu hasn’t been able to deliver annexation prior to the election; that seems to have diluted the effect” of Trump’s plan.

Since coming home from a tour abroad that included stops in Washington, Moscow and Entebbe, Uganda — all meant to showcase the prime minister’s diplomatic bona fides — Netanyahu has spent the subsequent weeks barnstorming the country.

He’s been addressing campaign rallies, showing up in the stands at the Beitar Jerusalem soccer match and spinning out social media videos. “This time, we’re going to win!” he said in a video.

Meanwhile, Likud campaign billboards picture Gantz getting a piggyback from Arab lawmaker Ahmed Tibi — arguing that a vote for Gantz means empowering Arab parties as well. “Gantz has no government without the [Arab-majority] Joint List, and that’s something that resonates with many voters,” said Saltan.

Israel’s courts announced on Tuesday that Netanyahu’s trial will begin March 17, the day after the new parliament is sworn in. “On March 17th,” Gantz said at a rally on Tuesday, “the mandate ends and the trial begins. Netanyahu will appear in court for a criminal trial. Netanyahu will be involved only with himself. He won’t be able to be concerned with Israeli citizens.”

So far the looming trial hasn’t shifted voters, either. Experts say it’s baked into public opinion already.

Barring an unforeseen or late-breaking surprise, the key to the election will be how the parties succeed at turning out their faithful on Election Day, say experts.

Though voter participation ticked up during the second round of voting in September, there are now signs of flagging interest. A Feb. 7 poll for the Yisrael Hayom newspaper and i24 News found that only 56 percent of respondents said they would definitely vote.

Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion expert and a strategic consultant advising the predominantly Arab Joint List slate, noted that the finding is markedly lower than the 60 to 70 percent range in previous elections. However, enthusiasm could still rally in the final days before the vote.

The Arab Vote

Conventional wisdom has it that there’s actually higher than usual enthusiasm among Israeli Arabs, the country’s one-fifth minority. After the Joint List finished as the third largest party in the September election, the party flirted with endorsing a coalition led by Gantz. That gave Arab voters a taste of empowerment. Both Blue and White and Likud are courting Arab voters, said Scheindlin.

“There’s a lot of messaging efforts. There’s a sense that there’s a real competition,” she said. “A population likes to feel that they’re sought after.”

The Trump peace plan, which proposed to transfer control over towns in the heavily Arab Triangle to Palestinian sovereignty, could also motivate Israeli Arab voters who prefer the status quo.

Despite fears of a fourth election, some analysts believe that there might be new pressures for a coalition to emerge.

For one thing, a new functioning coalition will be essential to approve new budgets that are necessary for the continued functioning of charedi Orthodox schools. That could prompt the religious parties to break with Netanyahu.

And when Netanyahu’s trial starts, there will be more pressure within Likud to nudge him aside —  even if it’s framed as a temporary measure for his trial. 

“There will be one or another right-wing party that will be willing to join a government without Netanyahu,” said Rynhhold. “Everybody in the Knesset knows that [the deadlock] is all about him. And the price of it just keeps going up.”