The good, the bad and the insignificant

A run-down of all of the parties, and all of the campaigns. Why did they say what they said, and did it work for them?

Lapid (Yesh Atid). His campaign managers chose a line of communication that says: “I’m the Prime Minister now, and I have a country to steer. I’m not rolling in the mud with you all”. The advantages to this approach are clear: after all, a prime minister’s agenda makes for very good opportunities to act in ways that will leave a lasting impact on the public through media, while casually claiming that those media stunts “have nothing to do with running for office”.

But there were also clear disadvantages: more often than not, it seemed that there was no campaign at all — despite Lapid having one of the most loyal and mobilized voter bases. Something in the strategy was clearly lacking creativity. There was too much effort to play nice and opt for conformity in face of a rousey and unhinged opponent, Netanyahu.

On the other hand, on at least one occasion, Lapid put up a serious fight to Netanyahu, with the maritime border agreement with Lebanon — by playing all of the tricks from the Netanyahu playbook: ‘Hijacking’ the news cycle and flooding the public agenda. For the first time in a while, Lapid commanded the event and was actively dominating the headlines, while everyone else was only reactive in defense (including Netanyahu, who found himself standing on the opposite side from basically the entire security establishment). Unfair? Maybe. But Lapid didn't come up with that tactic.

Netanyahu (Likud). The conditioned reflex requires us, as always, to ‘hats off’ the PR genius that he is. But if we succeed in looking past one of his most popular tricks in the book (namely, regretting something you said a day earlier, but smoothing it over by simply ignoring it, because who is going to remember it anyway?), and if we do the math about all the twists and turns of this campaign, it becomes more evident that Netanyahu often found himself facing difficulties when attempting to flood the national news with his agenda. He also dealt with a number of failed spins that he tried to twist and with a growing online presence of fact-checkers, sifting through social media with a healthy dose of skepticism and waiting to call bullshit on him.

Netanyahu started out with the issue of high cost of living, moved on to the ‘good’ old “Muslim Brotherhood coalition” trope, came up with the new shtick of “Bibi-Ba” (“Bibi is coming”) rallies, and quickly realized that the glass booth  is not such a great thing in terms of our collective memory. Later, as mentioned, he found himself being led, rather than leading, on the maritime agreement with Lebanon. Poll analysis (which has always been Netanyahu's traditional forte) showed from the beginning that most of the public didn’t care less for the agreement. From there, Netanyahu jumped over to the issue of personal security, against the backdrop of the tense security situation. Security is surely an issue that relates to us all, but it was just then that his nemesis government began a crackdown on Palestinians that included arrests and executions that Israel had not seen in years.

In between all of that, he was also responsible for some ludicrous statements (even if he wasn’t the one to utter them, they were traced back to his supporters and campaign managers). This time, apparently, those went too far. For example, that Meretz is supposedly going to legislate again circumcision, or that left-wing Ashkenazis are descendants of Nazis who infiltrated Israel, or that Yair Lapid's wife is a Jesuit missionary, or that he would place a moratorium on mortgages — a statement that automatically rang the bell for dozens of economic experts, reporters, commentators and fact-checkers that warned against the repercussions of such a move (after which Netanyahu backed down and said that what he actually meant was Arnona, the property tax). And finally, in the last days of his campaign, Netanyahu had already switched to his “hold me, I’m ‘bout to spaz” mode, posting bizarre videos as well as his daily sequence of interviews on his home channel, channel 14. From all these attempts, his biggest success in dominating the public agenda was the autobiographical book he published. But even there things didn’t go smoothly. The editor of the book insisted on opening the can of worms about what may or may not have happened in the Sabena Hijacking incident, or why his daughter Noa doesn’t appear in the dedications to his family. Lucky for him, the public interest in that question quickly evaporated from the public discourse, and so did the testimony of Nir Hefez on Channel 13. There’s only so much of Netanyahu’s corruption that the people can keep track of, and Netanyahu is well aware of that.

But those looking for the cracks in the wall of Netanyahu's campaign should keep in mind that he’s not trying to convert Meretz voters. Rather, he’s trying to do two things: Firstly, to fully exhaust his broad base of supporters, so that each and every one of them goes out to vote; And secondly, to carefully maneuver the delicate power dynamics within his bloc, to prevent cannibalization, if Ben-Gvir (Religious-Zionism) were to gain power at the expense of the Likud itself. When he tries to control the public agenda, he surely knows that the result may sometimes be artificial and unsuccessful. But the truth is that it doesn't really matter: what matters is that in doing so, he consolidates the Likud base against the ultimate enemy, "the Left". 

Gantz (National Unity). Gantz's military background is clearly visible, and we're not talking about his branding as the blue-eyed, reassuring security expert, but rather about the mentality and language he deploys in his political campaigning.

Because really, what is Gantz's campaign actually saying? “Since the polls indicate a low double-digit number of mandates, making Lapid (rather than Netanyahu) my direct opponent — I have no choice but to aim for a clever scoring maneuver”. Gantz can not aim for a smashing victory in the battlefield. The chances for that are rather thin. Instead, he aims for something akin to the decisive course of action in the Yom Kippur War: from an almost fatal disadvantage, to traversing the Suez canal and eventually encircling the Third Army from within Egyptian territory.

That’s why Gantz’s campaign presented voting for Lapid as counterintuitive, because in the given inter-bloc tie, there is no way Lapid could form a coalition. But Gantz has a secret, a magic-trick up his sleeve that will make a decisive strike at this conundrum, with him at the lead of course. Not everyone is capable of understanding the brilliance in this move. Gantz directs his gaze directly at the viewers and states confidently that only he, can be trusted. He asks us to have faith in him. He already has the magic-trick prepared, he just has to…

But what is he actually getting at? Does he plan on being the usher who will lead the Ultra-Orthodox (who are expected to lose voters to Ben-Gvir) to the altar? Or maybe he’s hoping that some MKs from the Likud will defect and tip the scale in his favor? Is he hinting at an agreement he plans to forge with Netanyahu in which he gets to sit in on the government as a senior MK — for example as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee — while Gantz leads a unity government with the Likud, all the while that Lapid is watching from the sidelines and asking himself, “how did they do this to me?”

The voters can only guess. And as far as Gantz is concerned, if he convinces enough of them that he’s a safe bet to solve the impasse — he did his part. Meanwhile, Gantz is also leveraging his high media profile as Minister of Defense. So much so, that sometimes it seems as if he is his own boss, which also contributes to his public position as de facto prime minister. At least in the realm of security which is so significant in a period of unrest in the occupied territories.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich (Religious-Zionism). With tailwind from Daddy Bibi, Ben-Gvir made his way into the Israeli mainstream relying on two simple principles: The first is that he is the most attentive and committed panelist. Any random cooking show for retirees, that airs at 11AM, that finds itself with an empty slot — can count on Ben Gvir. As long as he gets a platform to spread his message, he’s not picky. And the second thing is that he is known for his traveling bureaus. If there’s a boiling point of nationalist violence — he’s already there setting up camp, and actively igniting the flames.

Carried on by the fears and hesitancy of the news networks about “what the viewers will say”, the nationalist, religious far-right agenda was funneled through an accelerated process of normalization. The racism in Israeli society was already there, but was often hidden in the closet. It popped up in family dinners from time to time, at the coffee shop between close-knit friends, or in the collective relief that is felt when it turns out that the casualties of a car accident are not Jewish. Ben-Gvir and his colleague-rival Smotrich are not the generators of that racism, they were merely called to the task of unveiling the masks of hypocrisy and saying to the public: “Admit it, this is what you wanted, right?” To some extent, Israel should be grateful for these two. It's better that we all know where we stand.

The Labour Party and Meretz. All attempts to get these two stubborn ladies to join hands failed, but in our blog, we have our own rules (forgive us, Merav and Zehava) and we’re putting the two together. Frankly, there was not much difference between the two campaigns. Both parties are tragic remnants of what they once were, with a supporter base that is as dull as a beer-bellied fan, mourning the long-time regression of their local soccer team.

If you search with a magnifying glass, you’ll find that the Labor party tried to veer to the right and present itself as a security-minded party that knows how to reap small achievements in the short-lived coalition (for example, the ‘war on crime’ in the Arab communities) while even embracing the settlers. Meanwhile, Meretz clung to the civil-rights platform. In any case, all of that was forgotten in the last straw since the campaigns were dedicated entirely to crying out “Oy Gevalt!”

Shas and United Torah Judaism. Here, too, we are conjoining two parties, but this time parties that target very different populations. And yet, there is a common threat to both: the trend within their publics to lean toward the nationalism of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. What does one do in that case? They pointed some fingers and had the rabbis scold the youngsters, mentioning loyalty to “the family” and adherence to the law of the Torah. Afterall, tradition is the foundational rock of the Ultra-Orthodox communities.

Hadash-Ta'al, Ra’am, Balad. The disappointment in Mansour Abbas, from what was supposed to be the “Government of Change” seemed to have caused a real fracture in the potential influence of the Arab society. The attitude of the average Arab voter, throughout most of the campaigns, was: “leave us alone, who’s voting anyway”. The three small parties only showed signs of life when they realized that this time it was serious — they were in danger of being wiped out. Ayman Odeh even went on to address the Jewish voters: Save me, he pleaded.

How sad that even the campaigns that were aimed at encouraging voter turnout — were mostly led by extra-parliamentary movements. The non-campaigns of the Arab parties are yet another brick in the dismal position of Arab society in Israel: a fifth of the country's population doesn’t have adequate representation in the house of representatives. Maybe it’s a trend that fits well with Ben-Gvir’s campaign.

Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu). Apparently relying on statistics pointing to a steady number of votes, even if not to a huge voter base — Lieberman kept quiet, a peaceful quiet. Here and there he pointed to his achievements as minister of finance, and made sure to cultivate a twitter image of a rather entertaining person, well versed in the sports scene. And that was about it. But will it be enough?

Ayelet Shaked. In press conferences, speeches and morning headlines, Shaked maintained a uniform line that was full of logical fallacies. “My soul belongs to you, O mighty leader”, she pleaded to Netanyahu, “forgive me father, for I have sinned” (while continuing to “sin” in the “Government of Change”). And he, Netanyahu, did not hide his intention to gobble up all her votes, till the very last of them. But if she was full of remorse and sorrow for the sin of cooperating with Bennett, why then did she not withdraw immediately and call on her supporters to vote for Likud? And if she chose to run till the very end of the race, who exactly is she trying to recruit?

What Shaked and her campaigners seemingly envisioned was a liberal right-winger, a Naftali Bennet of sorts, with a tiny knit yarmulka ("Kippa Sruga") who works in Hi-tech and enjoys hiking in the Dead Sea with his ragged army T-shirt. Shaked took a bet on a tiny sub-genre within the religious-zionist sector, that wants Netanyahu as Prime Minister, but doesn’t want to vote for Likud, and thinks that Smotrich and Ben Gvir are tainting the respectability of the camp. In order to pass the electoral threshold by relying on a sub-niche of voters, one really needs to plead to the heavens.