Behind a voting booth at an army base in southern Israel, March 15, 2015. Photo by AFP
1. As the election campaign enters its 11th hour, Israeli politicians are emulating the strategy espoused by Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach after his improbable pass to wide receiver Drew Pearson in the 1975 NFL Playoffs beat the Minnesota Vikings 17-14: “I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.” Though they obviously wouldn’t describe it in such Catholic terms, that’s what the two big parties were doing on Monday: closing their eyes and throwing long distance Hail Mary passes that they hope will clinch the tight game for them.
The Jewish equivalent to the Hail Mary might be from Psalms 121 which opens with “I shall raise my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come?” And ends with “The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in from now and to eternity.” Most of the politicians are praying for the coming in, of course, rather than the going out.
2. Tzipi Livni’s last-minute acquiescence to relinquish her rotation agreement with Isaac Herzog is being depicted, alternately, as a noble sacrifice or as act of desperation, as the final piece of a meticulously thought out game plan or as a last ditch do-or-die ploy of a party that’s run out of ideas. Whatever its origin, it succeeded in wresting back from Netanyahu the agenda of the campaign, which he has dominated throughout most of its last days.
3. In real news terms, Netanyahu’s surprisingly emphatic statement that if he is reelected there won’t be a Palestinian state is far more significant, both in the short and long term, than Livni’s tactical retreat. It marks a clear departure from the classic political strategy that got Netanyahu elected in 1996, 2009 and 2013: shore up your base, then go for the center. In this case, Netanyahu has more or less given up on the center and is lurching to his right in an effort to lure back ideological right wing voters, especially those who have drifted off to Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi.
If Netanyahu wins the elections, however, his statement will make it much more difficult for him to set up a national unity government with Herzog and the Zionist Camp; Netanyahu says he’s not interested, but he might not have much choice, depending on the final numbers of the vote.
4. By shifting to the right and by emphasizing his anti-Palestinian credentials, Netanyahu hopes to achieve another aim: boost the ideological aspect of the elections at the expense of the personal. Netanyahu realizes that many right wing voters mistrust him, don’t like him or are simply tired of him. By turning the campaign at the last minute from a referendum on Netanyahu into a “Save the Land of Israel” issue, Netanyahu seeks to prod right-wingers to hold their noses and their personal dislike for him inside the ballot booth and vote Likud anyway.
5. By doing so, Netanyahu is not only “cannibalizing” his own right wing camp, as the pundits put it, he is detracting from the appeal of the candidates whose campaign is centered on their personal charisma. This is true of Bennett, Lapid and, to a lesser extent, Kahlon. At the same time, however, the prime minister's lurch to the right could also be driving away moderate voters from the Likud to Kahlon, if the former communications minister might have drained the Likud for all the moderate votes that it had to offer even before Netanyahu nixed the Palestinian state.
And if there is any one candidate poised to do much better than the polls predict right now, it is Kahlon.
6. Even though the law does not compel the president to appoint the leader of the largest party to form the next government but rather the candidate who stands the most chance of cobbling together a coalition, both sides realize this is only true if the gap between the two is minimal. Even if Netanyahu stands a better chance, on paper, if he ends the election trailing Herzog by 4-5 Knesset seats, as the last polls showed, Rivlin will be hard put to appoint him first (not that the president really wants to…). That’s why Netanyahu is now intent on gnawing at Bennet and taking votes away from him, and that’s why Herzog and the Zionist Camp have launched an all out assault on Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid voters. Because universal denials notwithstanding, size does matter.
7. You will have noticed, though, that Netanyahu seems to be devoting far more effort to wooing Bennett voters and far less to stealing those committed to Avigdor Lieberman; the same is true of Herzog, who is zeroing in on Lapid and ignoring Meretz on this left.
The reason for this is simple: if either Lieberman or Meretz lose too many votes they could easily slip under the 3.25% threshold and be barred from the Knesset altogether. In both cases, such a development would deal a serious blow to their respective bloc’s chances of forming a coalition, though the damage to Herzog by Meretz’s demise would be far greater than that of Lieberman’s to Netanyahu: the former’s coalition options are much more limited than the latter’s from the outset.
8. Lieberman, in any case, has been doing his utmost to bring more and more votes to the Israeli Arab Joint List: you could almost say he is their secret weapon. His harsh and often abominable attacks on Israel’s Arab citizens seem to be driving up their motivation to participate in Tuesday’s vote, possibly bringing them to the point of being anointed as Israel’s third largest party and, in case of a national unity government – leaders of the opposition.
The irony here is multiplied many times over: it was Lieberman’s support for raising the threshold in the hope that it would drive them out that forced the Arabs to come together in the first place; it is Lieberman’s continued agitation that is driving up their voting numbers and thus boosting the threshold and thus increasing the danger to Lieberman himself; and, under certain circumstances, an over-performing Joint List, courtesy of Lieberman, could make the difference in propelling Herzog to the Prime Minister’s Office instead of Netanyahu.
So while Lieberman is promising to move heaven and earth when he becomes the next defense minister, his real concern is whether he’ll be elected to parliament at all.
9. In this context, perhaps the most significant last-gasp development on Monday was the one you least heard of: Joint List leader Ayman Odeh’s statement that his party might recommend Isaac Herzog as prime minister. This not as obvious a move as it may seem: Arab parties usually refrain from recommending “Zionist” leaders as prime ministers, and Odeh will find it especially hard to do so given the decidedly anti-Zionist elements on his list, especially Balad.
Nonetheless, such a recommendation could make a difference: if Rivlin is simply counting up recommendations, and if we assume that some parties will refrain from opting for either Herzog or Netanyahu, it could be Odeh’s word that will send Herzog over the top and enable him to get first crack at setting up a coalition. If that happens, Herzog must surely send over a large bouquet of fresh flowers to Avigdor Lieberman.
10. In Israel’s convoluted electoral system, it’s not over even when it’s over, and this time, the cliffhanger could go on for days. First off, if some parties are wavering around the threshold mark, we won’t know if they’ve made it or not until the very last votes are in: this could make a dramatic difference, one way or another. Then we might see the horse-trading begin even before the president starts summoning the parties to his office to make their recommendations. And even when Rivlin will pick someone, that’s not necessarily the end of the story: the first candidate might fail, and their successor might fail, and we could easily find ourselves in May or June without a new government yet. And who knows? Maybe new elections will be the solution.
The fat lady is not only not singing yet, in some scenarios she’s still quite slim, actually, and hasn’t even begun to find her voice.