In 1929, Lt-Col J L Schley of the US Corps of Engineers issued a warning: armies spend peacetime preparing to fight the last war rather than the next one. While the American’s comment turned into a soundbite, much less discussed is the political equivalent: the tendency by strategists to fight the previous election. As Israelis prepare to go to the polls, it is this mistake that could spell the end to more than 10 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.
One of the most significant moments in the 2015 elections came in the final 48 hours. Polls showed Netanyahu losing ground to the Zionist Union and policy wonks discussed the approaching end of an era. What saved Netanyahu’s bacon became known as his gevalt campaign, a masterclass in scare tactics that, in the final hours, moved several seats to Likud at the expense of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, leaving Netanyahu victorious again.
While Jewish Home’s loss was painful, it didn’t decimate the party. And like good foot soldiers, Bennett and Ayelet Shaked served faithfully in Netanyahu’s coalition as ministers for education and justice.
Four years later, plus ça change…
Again, analysts initially believed Netanyahu would breeze to victory. Again, with the clock ticking, polls show Likud trailing. And again – yet significantly earlier this time – the gevalt campaign is in full swing. Netanyahu is arguing three former chiefs of staff are leftists, weak and Hamas sympathisers in league with the ‘Arabs’ while stating only he can protect the country from existential danger.
Whether his campaign will work or whether Netanyahu will become the boy who cried wolf remains to be seen. But ironically, it could be Netanyahu’s success in winning this battle that leads him to lose the war.
Following the April election, the president is required to ask the MK with the best chance of getting a majority of 61 seats – rather than the leader of the largest party – to form a governing coalition. In light of this, analysts are better advised to count the numbers within the so-called blocs than the specific seats allotted to Likud or Blue/White. Viewed through this prism, Blue/White is in trouble. Despite generally leading in the polls, various permutations suggest the party will struggle to reach 61, even if it ultimately gains more seats than Likud.
To counter this, the party is doubling down on an alternative strategy – creating a margin of victory over Likud so large the president will be hard pushed not to recommend it has first shot at forming a coalition.
A well-worn phrase in Israeli right-wing circles is that one doesn’t shoot within the armoured personnel carrier (APC). Any fire hurts all its inhabitants, including the one who shoots. So far, the right-wing parties have been disciplined in refraining from criticising their ideological bedfellows. But a recent report in Israel Hayom – the newspaper with its finger on the pulse of the ruling party and its leader – claimed the Likud campaign team was evaluating the possibility of trying to siphon off seats from Yisrael Beitenu, the New Right and the United Right. If polls continue to show Likud trailing, the APC may become very dangerous.
Netanyahu’s 2015 strategy worked only because the cannibalised party still passed the 3.25 percent electoral threshold – but 2015 is not 2019. The plethora of right-wing parties competing means right-wing votes are already being diluted between ideologically similar bedfellows. Moreover, several of Netanyahu’s preferred coalition parties are already teetering perilously close to the threshold. One small push in the form of siphoning off seats to strengthen Likud could push them off the precipice. If that were to happen, Netanyahu could struggle to maintain his premiership, regardless of how many additional seats he gains.