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Analysis: It will take something exceptional to happen for Bibi to lose election

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Benjamin Netanyahu

Analysts thought last week was a very good week for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, courtesy of his close friend in the White House.

On Thursday, Netanyahu became the first national Israeli leader to escort a top U.S. official, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a visit to the Western Wall. Shortly after, U.S. President Donald Trump announced via tweet his intention to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Commentators focused on the political benefits of both actions: a major photo op showing Netanyahu making history at the Western Wall, and the realization of a policy objective supported by much of the Israeli public. With only a few weeks left in the election campaign, many analysts suggested the positive coverage for Netanyahu was a political gift from Trump, especially since it came at an opportune moment in the campaign, amid headlines about a deepening corruption scandal.

The first polls are now out and they might surprise the pundits: there was no jump for Netanyahu’s Likud Party. In polls conducted for Israel’s Channel 12 and Channel 13, the Likud either maintained their strength or fell back one seat. Netanyahu can take some consolation that after a week of further revelations into self-serving business dealings surrounding the purchase and sale of German submarines the damage appears minimal, but the anticipated benefits of the new American policies clearly were not realized.

It remains possible that the political benefits to Netanyahu and the Likud might still become visible later in the campaign as the Likud’s messaging increasingly emphasizes the triumph of realizing American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. But after Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz’s well received speech in Washington and a fresh round of rocket attacks on central Israel, it is more likely that last week’s news will quickly fade into distant memories.

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The latest two polls could also be underestimating the Likud’s support, but it is more likely that the commentators were wrong, and both Pompeo’s visit to the Western Wall, and Trump’s Golan announcement had little effect on the Israeli election campaign. Here are three reasons that could be the case:

  • Most voters have already decided. Photo opportunities are simply political advertisements, and just as consumers often discount messaging in ads, so too voters are disregarding these campaign events. Even a substantive policy triumph like the Golan recognition is unlikely to cause voters who have already made up their minds to reassess their choice.
  • Most Israeli voters do not intend to vote for Netanyahu’s Likud: At best, the Likud is expected to win about 30 seats, or about 25 per cent of the 120-seat Knesset. To look at it the other way, at least 70 per cent of the electorate has decided to vote for a party other than the Likud. Through those partisan lenses, most voters will cynically view the events as a ploy by an opposing party to win support. Since even the centrist parties in Israel already supported annexing the Golan, the U.S. move hardly created daylight between voters and their chosen parties. Netanyahu may briefly be given credit for the diplomatic triumph, but then many voters will remind themselves of his perceived faults and failures that caused them to support a different party.
  • President Trump fed the narrative that the Golan recognition and the Pompeo visit were a political ploy. Trump cast his surprise tweet in terms of Israel’s security and by incorrectly claiming that his predecessors had promised, but failed, to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. Since there has been no push to negotiate with Syria or unilaterally withdraw from the Golan, the only reason for the policy announcement was political. The interpretation that the actions were political, rather than to protect Israeli or American national interests, diminished the value of the actions both abroad and in Israel.

 

Several polls right before last Thursday’s events suggested that the expected coalition of religious and right-wing parties closely allied with Netanyahu can expect to return to the next Knesset with a small majority of seats. By this critical metric, little has changed in the past week (although it is still within most surveys’ margin of error that Netanyahu and his allies could fall short of the 61 seats needed to form a coalition). It appears something more surprising — or something that represents a bigger change from the status quo — would be necessary to dramatically move the polls at this point in the campaign.