“There is a God” was the first thing Likud activists exclaimed on Monday evening when at 10 PM the exit polls of the third Israeli election in one year time were published and showed Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s latest stunning political victory.
The activists might have a hard time explaining the huge victory of Likud and one could understand the thought that the unexpected victory was nothing less than a Divine intervention but the man in Balfour Street in Jerusalem showed again he’s nothing less than “a political magician,” as Jerusalem Post analyst Herb Keinon put it.
For months after the September election in Israel polls showed that Kachol Lavan (Blue and White party) was leading but that began to change at the beginning of this year.
First, there was the revelation of the ‘deal of the century’ the new plan to solve the 100-year-old Palestinian Israeli conflict that could have been written by Netanyahu himself.
The roll-out of the US plan came as the Israeli TV media were gearing-up for more attacks on Netanyahu for his refusal to step down after three indictments for criminal behavior were filed against him when he was still in Washington.
The publication of Trump’s out-of-the-box plan changed the public discussion in Israel and for days Netanyahu’s legal troubles disappeared from the prime-time news shows.
The reports about Netanyahu’s indictment were replaced with news about Netanyahu’s unprecedented relations with Russia which caused Russian President Vladimir Putin to release the 26-year-old Israeli woman Na’ama Issachar who had been imprisoned in Moscow after she was caught smuggling 9.5 grams of marijuana.
Then, in the aftermath of the publication of Trump’s plan and Na’ama’s release, media attention shifted to Israel’s warming ties with Muslim countries as Netanyahu suddenly traveled to Uganda to meet Sudan’s new leader Abdel Fattah al-Burham.
The meeting with al-Burham was more than symbolic and marked a turning point in the relations between Israel and Sudan that had been in Iran’s orbit until recently.
Netanyahu made yet another move that changed the campaign and the discussion about his indictments. He withdrew his request for immunity, a move that surprised his opponents and took away the threat that this issue would dominate the public agenda until elections day.
His handling of the Coronavirus crisis gave the public another reason to rethink voting for a party which leaders have little experience in the handling of a nation-wide crisis and silenced his critics in Kachol Lavan who still wanted to convince the public Netanyahu was lame-duck because of the three indictments
However, the most important reason for Likud’s stunning victory was the way Netanyahu handled the final weeks of the campaign.
During the many rallies, he attended the 70-year-old PM highlighted his long record of impressive achievements for the State of Israel and traveled crisscross the country to meet his supporters and to talk to people who might vote for him this time around.
His base showed they hadn’t forgotten him and treated him as a victim of a witch hunt while he fired them up.
Contrary to the two elections in 2019, Netanyahu didn’t conduct a ‘gevalt’ campaign but told Israelis to get out and vote. When voter turn-out would grow a Likud victory and the forming of a right-wing government could become possible for the first time since 2018 when Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Liberman caused the fall of his right-wing government Netanyahu told his base.
The caretaker PM also out-maneuvered his most important rival Benny Gantz by challenging the Kachol Lavan leader to debate him on TV, a proposal Gantz declined to accept.
The Kachol Lavan leader most likely lost the race for the Prime Minister’s office because of his lack of charisma and vision. However, the revelation of a tape in which Israel Bachar, his closest campaign adviser said Gantz was stupid and weak and would not be able to handle Iran’s growing threat against Israel will probably have functioned as the final blow to Gantz’ PM dream.
Another blow to the Kachol Lavan campaign was the decision by the Israeli police to open an investigation into criminal practices at The Fifth Dimension a company founded and run by Benny Gantz that went bankrupt before he entered politics.
The decision effectively destroyed Gantz image as ‘mister clean’ although he’s currently not treated as a suspect by police.
On elections day, moreover, Netanyahu continued to campaign in cities that traditionally voted for Likud but had a low voter turn-out during the previous elections while simultaneous reaching out to the public via a live-feed on his Facebook account.
The results of these cities showed the last-minute campaign had been effective.
At the same time, Likud activists plastered walls and fences in smaller Jewish towns and villages with posters and banners calling upon the public to get out and vote for the party.
Kachol Lavan, meanwhile, sensed their ‘anything but Bibi’ campaign was failing and sent their leaders to cities that in September helped the party winning the election but the tactic apparently failed to mobilize enough voters.
In Tel Aviv, for example, voter turn-out was much lower than the rest of the country while Bat Yam a Likud stronghold south of Tel Aviv had a much larger voter turn-out than was the case in September.
As things stand now Netanyahu will be tasked with forming a government, not with-standing the fact that the block of rightwing parties again failed to obtain at least 61 seats in the new Knesset.
The bloc won 59 seats according to the latest data that still don’t include the votes of IDF soldiers who tend in majority to vote for right-wing parties. If the final results don’t give the right a clear majority chances are high Likud will ask some right-wing politicians in Kachol Lavan and the Labor-Meretz-Gesher list to defect and to join the new Netanyahu-led government.