Israel’s Homegrown Houdini Finally Hits Limit to Political Magic

Amy Teibel and Ivan Levingston

(Bloomberg) -- Benjamin Netanyahu’s unrivaled deftness as an Israeli political operator has deserted him.

The nation’s longest-serving prime minister is holding on for his political life following a disappointing showing in Tuesday’s near dead-heat election, and his political messaging is largely to blame. He trotted out tried-and-true tactics like bashing Arabs and a narrative of his own indispensability, but this time they came up short.

Netanyahu, whose previous political escape acts earned him the nickname “the magician,” highlighted his stature on the world stage, especially his close ties with U.S. President Donald Trump, who boosted the prime minister’s standing by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli control over the war-won southern Golan Heights.

Netanyahu also appealed to nationalists with renewed vows to annex West Bank territory the Palestinians claim for a state, as well as screeds against Israeli Arabs and the left.

These themes didn’t work because “he’s maxed out his potential,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst at the Mitvim research center who worked for the leftist Democratic Union early in its campaign.

“He didn’t have any new arguments, he got all the votes he could in the past on these arguments. Everybody knows these things,” Scheindlin said.

With nearly all votes counted, Netanyahu’s Likud party trailed Benny Gantz’s Blue and White bloc, with 31 of parliament’s 120 seats to 33. The outcome of the vote is still inconclusive, however, because neither party has the support of a parliamentary majority of 61 lawmakers.

Several developments late in the campaign may have hurt Netanyahu’s portrayal of his global influence, said Professor Camil Fuchs, a statistician involved in polling. These would include Trump’s stated willingness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, an idea Netanyahu stridently opposed, and a report that Russian leader Vladimir Putin left him waiting for three hours after he flew to Sochi to meet him.

“I imagine that was a crack in his narrative,” Fuchs said.

The anti-Arab messaging backfired completely.

The Netanyahu camp delivered a steady tattoo of warnings against the prospect of a left-wing government that would rely on the support of Arab parties, at one point warning that Arabs “want to destroy us all.” It also launched an effort, which foundered in parliament, to equip party operatives with body cameras at the polls to counter unproven claims of widespread Arab voter fraud.

Arab voters tend to display their displeasure with the Israeli government in one of two ways: they either boycott elections or turn up in higher numbers, Fuchs said.

In April, Arab voters stayed home, dejected over a new law on Israel’s Jewish character they see as racist, and disappointed that the joint list of Arab parties had splintered, diluting its ability to protect their interests. This time, based on voters’ stated intentions before the elections, Arab turnout got a big bump from the camera campaign, which was viewed as an attempt to intimidate Arabs from voting, he said.

It energized them even more than the drumbeat of anti-Arab messaging they’re used to from previous campaigns because it involved action against the Arab community, and not just talk, Fuchs said.

“They are trying to physically block our rights and make us vote less, so we have to vote,” was the thought that galvanized turnout, he said. Arab turnout soared to 60% from 49% in April.

A Netanyahu confidant, lawmaker Miki Zohar, acknowledged the camera proposal was a dud.

“The campaign of cameras didn’t help us, it hurt us,” Zohar said.

Netanyahu’s prospects of lining up a parliamentary majority of 61 were also hurt by polling that showed the social democratic Labor-Gesher alliance slipping dangerously close to the threshold for entering parliament, according to Fuchs. “There was a mobilization in Tel Aviv and places like it” because if Labor-Gesher didn’t get into Knesset, “the chance of Netanyahu getting 61 would have significantly risen,” he said.

Turnout rose in these secular areas, while some people who had originally thought to vote for other parties ended up switching to Labor-Gesher, he said.

On election day, Netanyahu convened what was billed as an emergency Likud party meeting amid reports of high turnout in Arab and liberal areas of the country. His Twitter account was plastered with warnings like this:

“Voters, have you lost your minds? Go out now and vote Likud in order to stop a left-wing government with the Arab parties?”

The prime minister isn’t giving up, though. After pledging on election night to put together a right-wing, religious government, on Thursday, he urged Gantz to join in a national unity government, a notion his rival has ruled out in the past because of the corruption allegations tainting the prime minister.

“He’s been able to pull rabbits out of hats throughout his history,” said Shalom Lipner, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has served seven Israeli prime ministers. “If and when we reach the point of history when he’s become passe, this will be how the prelude looks, but that doesn’t mean we’re at that point yet.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Amy Teibel in Jerusalem at ateibel@bloomberg.net;Ivan Levingston in Tel Aviv at ilevingston@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lin Noueihed at lnoueihed@bloomberg.net, ;Benjamin Harvey at bharvey11@bloomberg.net, Mark Williams

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