No Bibi surge – but a party switch

Polls have failed to detect the surge in support Netanyahu expected as a result of Israel’s vaccine roll-out success


Israeli MP and chairperson of the centre-right Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, speaks during a press conference for foreign press association correspondents, on December 12, 2016, in Jerusalem. / AFP / THOMAS COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images)

Benjamin Netanyahu could barely conceal his rage. He had called a “special press conference” on Tuesday evening at the Health Ministry to deliver “life-saving messages” on the coronavirus pandemic — and the two main commercial television channels had decided not to broadcast it live.

When a correspondent for the top-rating Channel 12 ventured a question, instead of answering, he first launched a broadside: “How can it be that these matters aren’t being broadcasted live? I’m telling you, these are matters of the highest importance.”

The prime minister had an interesting update on the government’s vaccination targets before beginning to ease the third nationwide lockdown; hardly “life-saving messages.” But he continued to attack the media later on his Facebook page: “It’s interesting when it comes to other politicians — that when voting for them will result in the formation of a Lapid-led government, the channels broadcast them live and the media embraces them.”

His election campaign has been blown off-course by the Israeli media’s annoying insistence on reporting matters other than Israel’s record-breaking vaccination rates, thanks to his personal intervention with the CEO of Pfizer. Matters such as the rate of Covid-19 infection, that has barely gone down; the hospital coronavirus wards which are still packed — now increasingly with younger patients in critical condition; and above all the flouting of the lockdown by members of the ultra-Orthodox community.

The polls have so far failed to detect the surge in support for Likud that he expected to see as a result of the vaccination roll-out ensuring that Israel becomes “the first country in the world to emerge from coronavirus.”

Israel may yet become the first country to achieve “herd immunity” thanks to the vaccinations but at this point it seems unlikely that will happen in time for the election on March 23. Not when the third wave of Covid-19 has so far shown no sign of rolling back and when much of the public blames Likud’s ultra-Orthodox allies.

There was at least one piece of good news for Mr Netanyahu in the polls this week. Likud has not gained ground but at least his rivals on the right, Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett, both lost ground and now ultra-centrist Yair Lapid’s Yesh is the second largest party. Mr Netanyahu believes he can brand Mr Lapid as “the weak left” and destroy him, just like he destroyed his former partner over the past three election campaigns.


poster child’s new hope


l Exactly two years ago, Benny Gantz launched his political career at a carefully choreographed rally. To introduce him an impressive 38 year-old was chosen who introduced herself as “a religious woman in the secular world” and “a daughter of a Libyan family who also cooks Ashkenazi food.”

Hila Shai-Vazan, who added to her credentials the fact that she was born in working-class Bat Yam and now lived in middle-class Modi’in, was selected to represent the exact centre of middle Israel as a former journalist and local council-member who epitomised Mr Gantz’s message of transcending the right-left and secular-Orthodox divides.

Blue and White succeeded for a short while, rivalling Mr Netanyahu’s Likud. Its poster-child Ms Shai-Vazan was elected to the Knesset, where she proved herself an efficient backbencher. This week, two years after the speech that launched the new party, she announced her departure for Gideon Sa’ar’s anti-Netanyahu right-wing New Hope party.

“Gideon Sa’ar is the only one with the experience and capabilities to return Israel to stability and as prime minister lead and heal the nation,” she said.

Benny Gantz, the man who would be prime minister, is not even crossing the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent in this week’s polls. “I had a difficult conversation with Benny,” said one of his allies who tried to convince him to drop out of the race. “He doesn’t realise it’s over.”


rehabilitating kahane


l Thursday at midnight was the deadline for filing candidates’ lists. Mr Gantz’s Blue and White was there, for the fourth time in two years. On its list is a small band of remaining loyalists but no new names. Mr Gantz called four weeks ago for other centrist parties to join forces with him. No-one did.

Elsewhere on the political spectrum, at the furthest right, rivals were coming together. 28 hours before the deadline, Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Nationalist-religious Zionut Datit party, signed an agreement to merge his list with Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of Jewish Power, the heir of Meir Kahane’s Kach party.

Normally, the two bitter rivals who competed for the same far-right constituency cannot bear to sit in the same room with each other. But now they’re partners. The match-maker was Mr Netanyahu. He has been pressuring Mr Smotrich for weeks to merge with the Kahanists. He showered him with inducements, cabinet portfolios, a seat on the judicial appointments committee, even an extra spot on Likud’s candidates’ list for one of Zionut Datit’s members. Finally, Mr Smotrich relented.

Mr Netanyahu was desperate to bring the two far-right parties together. Separately neither of them were likely to pass the threshold. Together, they can add 4 or 5 MKs to his coalition and perhaps ensure his majority.

Back in the 1980s, when Rabbi Kahane served his single term in the Knesset, he was untouchable. None of Likud’s leaders would be seen dead speaking to him. When he got up to speak in the plenum, all the MKs would work out in protest. Now Likud’s leader, desperate to hold on to power, has posthumously rehabilitated Kahane.




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