Kafe Knesset: Final polls - caveat emptor | Gevalt + the counter-gevalt | Gantz vs Labor | Bibi touts annexation

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The Last Polls - Caveat Emptor: The final weekend of the campaign has passed, and with it, by law, the final polls (released late Thursday and Friday). After the last two weeks of shrinking poll numbers, three of the major surveys had Blue and White back with a 4-5 seat lead over Likud. Three others, however, had the two largest parties in a dead heat. Yet the surveys overall were consistent in one respect: all gave a commanding lead to the nominal right-wing bloc of parties (including the ultra-Orthodox factions) — roughly 63 to 66 seats — relative to the left-wing bloc (including the Arab factions) — 54 to 57 seats. For this reason most analysts point to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as holding the easier and likelier path back to the premiership.

And yet...as Kafe Knesset highlighted last week, this election cycle is unique in the large number of undecideds still on the board — by one count perhaps a third of all voters. The role of President Reuven Rivlin in deciding who exactly will get the first opportunity to form a governing coalition will also prove crucial, as will how many of the unprecedented 14 parties in the running pass the 3.25 percent (4 seat) electoral threshold.

Of the eight parties in potential danger, almost all the polls had the centrist Gesher (Orly Levy-Abuksis) not getting in; some polls had the right-wing Israel Beitenu (Avigdor Lieberman) below the threshold in addition to the Arab Ra’am-Balad faction.

It’s worth remembering that in the previous election cycle in 2015, Bibi’s then-chief rival, Isaac “Boujie” Herzog, held a four seat lead heading into the last weekend. He ended up losing to Netanyahu’s Likud by six seats. In other words, as Trump and Brexit in 2016 taught us — caveat emptor regarding the polls. In a recent appearance at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israeli journalists Ehud Yaari and Tal Shalev (a past Kafe Knesset curator) emphasized this point in unusually blunt language.

“I’m coming from the biggest television network in Israel [i.e. Channel 12], I see how it’s done,” Yaari said about the election surveys. “I see how it undergoes cosmetic changes before it gets to air. I see how the different pollsters coordinate before they publish the results.” Shalev agreed, adding that “Israelis do Israeli polls...American pollsters that work here in Israel are shocked at how many polls we have and how unprofessional they are.”

“They give the journalists much to talk about and set the momentum but they are not necessarily credible,” Shalev said. We may be “flying blind,” as some put it, given the lack of polling over the last five days before April 9 — but that’s only if you believe we had any real foresight to begin with. Come Tuesday anything can still happen.

Final Weekend Roundup — ‘Gevalt’ and Counter-Gevalt: The various parties, as expected, are in the midst of a frenzied last-minute outreach campaign, trying to sway all of the above undecideds — and crucially, the tottering voters within their respective blocs….

Netanyahu over the weekend doubled-down on his warning that he was trailing by four to five seats, raising the specter of “right-wing rule” being toppled and urging his supporters to “wake up.” This pitch is meant to bring right-wing voters back to the Likud from the various smaller nationalist factions, but it does carry a risk. If Netanyahu is too successful then some of those very same parties may not pass the electoral threshold, altering the balance between the right-left blocs and by extension Bibi’s potential advantage over Gantz in forming a coalition. The PM famously deployed this same tactic — the so-called ‘Gevalt’ (“alarm”) campaign — in the final days of the 2015 campaign….

For their part, the smaller parties essentially accused Netanyahu of lying, with Arieh Deri, head of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas, saying today that Bibi was “projecting incorrect hysteria.” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of the precariously perched Kulanu, termed it “political spin” last night on Channel 12, adding that Netanyahu’s internal polls show him actually leading by four mandates. While deflecting a question on whether he would be willing to sit in government with a PM Gantz, Kahlon dismissed Blue and White’s path to cobbling together a coalition. “Your chance of forming a government is the same as Gantz’s,” he told his interviewer….

Final Weekend Roundup — Only One Option To Topple Bibi: After a campaign mostly spent appealing to “soft” right-wing voters, Blue and White over the weekend continued with its harder line against Netanyahu as well as its rivals in the center-left bloc, Labor. “We’ve created a governing alternative that hasn’t existed for the past ten years,” Gantz said yesterday. “We’re at an historic hour and historic opportunity...we can go in the direction of hope, unity and reconciliation or we can go for a model of extremism that will only get worse”….

More telling, the party has hammered home the point to left-wing voters that it needs a substantial gap over the Likud — four to five seats, depending on the day — in order to at least have the option of forming the next government. As Gantz’s messaging put it, any vote not cast for Blue and White is a vote for Bibi….

Labor has tried to combat this line — and the siphoning of its voters — by stating (implausibly) that it’s the only true option for “change” and that Blue and White will enter a Bibi-led government. Labor chair Avi Gabai also attacked Blue and White for the premiership rotation deal between Gantz and his running mate Yair Lapid, claiming polls showed it dragging down the ticket and should therefore be done away with (if the good of the country was of utmost concern to them...). Gantz again rejected this move last night, saying on Channel 12 that Lapid would make a fine PM and that he “honored agreements”….

If Labor’s final pre-election rally is any indication, Blue and White’s own ‘Gevalt’ campaign seems to be working. Held in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square last night, only about 200 people showed up to hear from Labor’s leader. After bringing the list’s top five candidates up to the small stage, Gabai gave a short speech, ending it with the rousing declaration “enjoy the plans” (i.e on the party website). No one else spoke and the event ended shortly thereafter….  

Final Weekend Roundup — Smaller Parties Staying Stubborn: It wasn’t all good news for Blue and White over the weekend. Last night Orly Levy-Abuksis, polling below the threshold, again rejected the option of dropping out of the race before Tuesday. There had been reports, some from Blue and White directly, of talks whereby in exchange for her support — and voters — Levy-Abuksis would be offered a ministerial post by Gantz (as an external appointment)….

Yakov Litzman, head of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, this morning again rejected the possibility of sitting in government with Gantz, due to Lapid’s presence in Blue and White. “If Lapid is in, then no,” Litzman emphatically told Army Radio. Lapid’s early political career was built on an anti-Haredi platform that appealed to secular Israelis; the ultra-Orthodox parties have neither forgotten nor forgiven, despite Lapid’s efforts in recent years to mend fences. Such statements, if they hold, further narrow Gantz’s options for cobbling together a governing majority after election day….

Moshe Feiglin, head of the far-right libertarian Zehut, is enjoying his newfound prominence on the political scene. Many point to Zehut as the potential kingmaker of the next government no matter if it’s Bibi or Gantz at the helm and, in this respect, Feiglin has upped his demands: if previously his unbreakable condition for joining a coalition was marijuana legalization, then in recent days he has increased it to no less than the finance ministry. As a true believer in libertarian orthodoxy this is potentially bad news for Israel’s ample social safety net. But one media appearance over the weekend raised questions about Feiglin’s overall mental state. There is no way for Kafe Knesset to do this highly erratic interview justice, although the Times of Israel did come close….

Annexation and the International Role: As part of his appeal to right-wing voters, Netanyahu over the course of several interviews in recent days stated his intent to annex swaths of the West Bank if re-elected. Addressing the Trump Administration’s looming “Deal of the Century,” Bibi told Channel 13 on Friday that he had relayed several conditions to Washington: no removal of even one West Bank settlement; all settlements — whether inside the blocs or outside — would remain under Israeli sovereignty; and Israel would retain control over all territory west of the Jordan River. Pressed on whether he would ask the U.S. government to recognize Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, the PM told his interviewers: “Wait until the next term”….

Bibi repeated this intention last night to Channel 12. Answering a question as to why he hadn’t yet annexed the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, the PM responded: “Who said we’re not.” “The next term will be fateful,” he added, “I don’t differentiate between settlement blocs and isolated settlements.” For their part, Gantz, Lapid, and Blue and White number four Gabi Ashkenazi earlier today all came out against unilateral annexation….

International actors have played a prominent role in this election, usually as a helpful crutch for Netanyahu. Late last week Bibi was in Moscow, where Russian President Vladimir Putin threw a full military ceremony in honor of the return home of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel’s remains. Asked by the Jerusalem Post whether Trump and Putin were seeking to get Bibi re-elected, Gantz replied: “One could think like that. I hope that’s not the case”….

Not to be outdone, Lapid unexpectedly flew to Paris on Friday for a quick meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. The substance — Iran, regional threats, anti-Semitism — was less important than the photo-op, with the two leaders embracing warmly. The current Israeli election has been remarkable for many reasons — but world leaders taking an active role in the campaign has to be up there….

The Week Ahead: The big upcoming date is obviously election day — Tuesday April 9. The interesting question is what may happen between now and then to sway the national mood, the undecideds in particular. Will there be another Trump “gift,” or a damaging leak against Gantz, or an eleventh-hour Netanyahu surprise?….

It’s important to note that the real outcome may not be known until Wednesday or possibly Thursday. Given the large number of parties near the electoral threshold and the fine margins involved, final vote tallies — especially those of IDF soldiers, which come in later — could prove decisive to the overall result….

In other news, Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails today launched a hunger strike in protest at a Prison Service crackdown on their conditions — primarily relating to illegal cellphone use. The recent move by Israeli authorities to curtail these conditions has led to riots in some prisons by convicted terrorists. The IDF and Shin Bet are known to be concerned that any protracted turmoil — and potential deaths stemming from the hunger strike — could lead to unrest in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.