Kafe Knesset: Election nine days away | Rivlin + undecideds + threshold could be key | Gaza clashes subdued after Egypt deal | Blue and White fail to reach surplus deal

Welcome to Kafe Knesset: Your daily guide on everything driving the conversation in Israeli politics. I’m Neri Zilber and I look forward to briefing you from now through the upcoming election and beyond. Thank you to our daily subscribers for your interest and support. If you are not yet a subscriber, please sign up here. You can also follow me @NeriZilber and please email Neri@KafeKnesset.com or reply to this newsletter with your news tips and feedback. Thanks!

The Election Home Stretch — 9 Days Out: A contentious election campaign that has seen almost everything today enters its last full week. The dominant narrative, just based on the polls, is uncertainty: Blue and White is still likely leading the Likud, although the right-wing bloc of parties (including the ultra-Orthodox) — what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls his “natural partners” — hold a commanding lead and therefore place Bibi with the best chance of forming a majority governing coalition. Three variables will likely decide how things actually play out after April 9….

Gantz vs Bibi vs Rivlin: As Kafe Knesset previously reported, Blue and White’s strategy is to win by a convincing margin, leaving President Reuven Rivlin with no choice but to give party head Benny Gantz the first opportunity to form a government. Blue and White number 2 Yair Lapid has over the past week doubled down on this approach, repeating on several occasions that they “require a gap of five seats” to get picked by the president over Netanyahu (and worry about the coalition negotiations afterwards). A smart bit of electioneering, trying to move anti-Bibi votes to Blue and White, but also possibly a self-defeating prophecy. At present the party holds a zero to four seat lead over Likud. Will the president still task Gantz with forming a government if Blue and White wins by, say, two seats?

After consulting with the various party heads, the process by which the Israeli president chooses who gets to form a government is famously ad hoc. Rivlin made the possible dilemma clear to a group of high-school seniors in Bet Shemesh last week. “As a rule, the president has to take into account what the people wanted in the election, as expressed in the results of the vote. So, if there are more than 61 [MKs] who recommend one MK, that means that the people have decided to give that person the opportunity to form a government,” Rivlin said.

“The question is, what does the president do when there is no majority for a single person. What should he take into account? Perhaps the biggest party? It may be a question of how many MKs support one candidate as opposed to how many support a different candidate, and whether the MK who received the most support has the best chance of persuading others to form a coalition with him. These are very difficult questions for the president”….

Undecided Voters & Turnout: For arguably the most political place on Earth, a large proportion of the Israeli public is still unsure about who it will vote for next week. According to one recent poll, only 37 percent of respondents said they were “completely sure” which party they would vote for, with another 29 percent vacillating between “not completely sure” and “not sure at all” that they would vote for their preferred parties. According to another poll from earlier this month, 50 percent of respondents agreed that it was harder this election cycle than in the past to decide. To put this in context, Prof. Avi Degani (Geo-Cartography Knowledge Group) told The Israel Project in an interview last week that historically only 12 to 14 percent of respondents (14 Knesset seats) are usually undecided.

Lack of enthusiasm could also translate into lower voter turnout generally. This is the fear, at least, in the Arab-Israeli community — and by extension the center-left bloc of parties. According to one internal poll commissioned by Hadash-Ta’al, voter turnout may drop by 19 percent among Arab-Israelis compared to the previous election. The two predominantly Arab factions — Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad — have failed to energize voters behind a clear campaign message after splitting apart the Joint (Arab) List to run separately this time. Ra’am-Balad, for its part, is in danger of not passing the electoral threshold….

Electoral Threshold as Kingmaker: Ra’am-Balad isn’t the only party hovering around the 3.25 percent (4 seats) red line. If the polls are to be believed, out of the unprecedented 14 parties with a realistic chance at entering the Knesset, fully half are in danger: Ra’am-Balad and Meretz on the left; Gesher (Orly-Levy Abuksis), Kulanu (Moshe Kahlon), and Yisrael Beitenu (Avigdor Lieberman) on the center-right; the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas (Aryeh Deri); and The New Right (Naftali Bennett/Ayelet Shaked).

Why does this all matter? Because failure to pass the bare threshold means those parties — and votes — disappear, effectively swaying the overall right-left bloc numbers mentioned above and by extension Bibi or Gantz’s respective chances at cobbling together a parliamentary majority….

Gaza Marches Subdued After Egyptian Deal: All eyes over the weekend turned to the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian factions yesterday marked Land Day and one year to the start of the “Great March of Return” border clashes. Despite fears of heightened violence leading to a major escalation between the IDF and Hamas (especially after last week’s rocket strikes on Israel), the day passed relatively calmly for both sides — calm being a relative concept on the Israel-Gaza frontier….

An estimated 40,000 demonstrators braved the whipping rain, wind and sand, coming out to various protest camps near the Gaza border. Four Palestinian rioters were reported killed and several seriously wounded by IDF fire — yet due to intensive Egyptian mediation efforts, Hamas deployed several hundred of its own security forces in bright orange vests to stop most demonstrators from approaching the border fence (and attacking IDF personnel stationed on the other side)….

Kafe Knesset decamped to the Gaza border for the day and can attest to the restraint shown by both sides. From inside Gaza there was no sound of preachers on loudspeakers urging demonstrators on; while the weather may have played a role, there was also minimal tire burnings and incendiary balloon launches. On the Israeli side, the IDF deployed in force as both a precaution and deterrence, including snipers. Yet new non-lethal riot dispersal means were also used: rubber bullets, water cannons, long-range acoustic devices, and larger tear gas canisters….

While the exact details of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire deal are still unclear, it undoubtedly exists. In return for the restraint shown yesterday and likely in future regarding border terrorism, Hamas is likely to receive major economic concessions from Israel. The Gaza border crossings have been re-opened (after their shuttering last week) and the fishing zone off the coast of Gaza is set to be expanded. Increased cash stipends (via Qatar), electricity generation, and employment/development projects (via the UN) are also likely….

Both Israel and Hamas still claim the tenuous calm is a “test” of the other side. Yet neither one — and especially Netanyahu, a week before an election — likely wants a war right now. A few hours after the border protests ended, five rockets were fired at southern Israel overnight, landing in open fields. The IDF responded with tank fire against empty Hamas military posts….

Blue and White Fails to Reach Surplus Vote Deal: The other significant political news of the weekend was the deadline for “Surplus Vote” deals between the various parties. Under Israel’s parliamentary system, factions that pass the electoral threshold can combine their surplus ballots to potentially form an additional Knesset seat (it goes to the faction with the greater number of surplus votes, which is usually the larger party). In this way, the two ultra-Orthodox parties — Shas and United Torah Judaism — signed an agreement, as did Labor and Meretz, The New Right and Yisrael Beitenu (despite the hatred between Bennett and Lieberman), and Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad….

Most interesting, however, was the deal struck between the Likud and the Union of Right Wing Parties — a Bibi-brokered merger between three far-right slates, including the Kahanist Jewish Power. URWP is polling at around 6 to 8 seats, with the last remaining  Jewish Power candidate currently number seven on the list. In other words, the surplus votes from the Likud/Netanyahu could in a very literal sense be what put the Kahanist into the next Knesset….

Blue and White, for its part, failed to reach any surplus votes agreement — as did Kulanu, Gesher, and Zehut (led by Moshe Feiglin, more about him in tomorrow’s newsletter). The logic may have been that as a centrist party it didn’t want to identify too heavily with either left or right. But foregoing any surplus votes could cost Benny Gantz a full seat, in an election where one mandate in either direction could dictate the future PM….

The Week Ahead: The final full week of the election will, as expected, see all the candidates and parties campaigning daily across the country — living room salons to large town halls, media interviews to final pitches via social media videos. It’s exhausting to cover, let alone to physically do like the candidates….

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro landed in Israel today for a full state visit, reciprocating Netanyahu’s trip to Brazil three months ago. A red carpet and honor guard greeted the Brazilian leader at Ben Gurion this morning. He and Netanyahu plan to hold a private meeting later, followed by an expanded ministerial meeting and then dinner. Tomorrow the two will visit the Western Wall, and on Tuesday take part in a “Israel-Brazil Innovation Summit” with private sector leaders….

While several bilateral agreements are set to be signed (security, aviation, science and technology) Bolsonaro isn’t expected to announce the move of his embassy to Jerusalem. A disappointment, perhaps, for the Israeli premier, but the impact of this state visit so conveniently close to election day is a useful reminder to the Israeli public of Bibi’s standing on the world stage.