JERUSALEM — The rap songs, leather-clad bikers, one particularly bizarre foot-slapping incident, controversial political statements and photo ops in Jerusalem’s main market can only mean one thing: Israel’s tightly fought election campaign is in its final stretch.
As the main candidates launch a last-ditch effort to garner support before polling stations open across the country on Tuesday morning, here’s what you need to know:
No fewer than 41 factions are vying for a place in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. That includes groups ranging from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party to the offbeat Pirate Party, although most of the smaller ones will not reach the minimum amount of votes needed win seats.
Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and the center-left Blue and White party, headed by a retired army lieutenant general, Benny Gantz, are the only parties that have a chance at forming Israel’s next government. Gantz has joined forces with Netanyahu’s longtime rival, Yair Lapid, and two other former army chiefs to form his new party. And after much mudslinging between the two main contenders, Gantz appears to be giving Netanyahu a run for his money.
Facing three former army chiefs, Netanyahu has been displaced from his usual perch as Israel’s “Mr. Security” and has tried to challenge Gantz and Lapid on political and diplomatic issues.
But Gantz, 59, who stands an imposing 6-foot-5, has kept his cool. His response to scathing attacks from Netanyahu has been simple. “Thank you for the last 10 years; we’ll take it from here,” Gantz has said throughout his campaign.
In a column published this week in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, the retired general stuck with the same theme, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname and arguing that his government has lost its way.
“Netanyahu has done good things too, but after 13 years in power, he is working only for himself,” Gantz wrote. “He is up to his neck in investigations, indictments, in a discourse of hatred and incitement. The time has come to tell him: Thank you, Bibi, enough.”
The final pre-election polls for Israeli media outlets were mixed. Seven surveys put Gantz’s Blue and White party ahead of Likud, by one to four seats. Two showed Likud winning by between one and three seats. One poll, by Israel’s Channel 13 News, called the race a dead heat.
But polls have been wrong before, and according to Tamar Hermann, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, they are getting worse. She is not a fan of Israeli polls, to put it mildly, saying they rely heavily on online sampling and small groups of respondents.
“They are a reality show and give us a bad name,” she said. “It’s totally for entertainment. They rely more and more on online surveys, and they are more unrepresentative than phone surveys.”
So, in short, the only thing that political pundits agree on in this election cycle is that anything can happen. And to complicate things in the Israeli system, the person who wins the most votes is not even necessarily the one who gets to form the next government.
How it works
It will be up to President Reuven Rivlin to decide who gets first stab at forming a coalition. He will make that decision based on recommendations from the head of every political faction that succeeds in making it into the parliament. Parties need at least 3.25 percent of the votes to pass the threshold, a percentage that translates to a minimum of four out of the 120 seats that make up the Knesset.
To be asked to form a coalition, either Gantz or Netanyahu will need the support of a majority of Knesset members — or at least 61 lawmakers.
Most of those potentially problematic polls give Netanyahu the edge on being able to form a government, mainly because his natural allies on the right of the political spectrum add up to a greater sum than those on the left and center that are likely to support Gantz. But that is assuming that no group on the right decides to opt for the retired general.
In a bid to boost the right wing, Netanyahu urged two far-right parties to form an alliance and invited an even more extreme faction, Otzma Yehudit, to join them.
Netanyahu described the partnership, which was widely condemned, even from within his own support base, as a technical move to ensure he would be able to form a coalition if reelected. Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, is viewed by many as an offshoot of the Kach Party, which was founded by Meir Kahane, an American Israeli ultranationalist who was assassinated in 1990. The State Department has designated Kach as a terrorist organization, and Israel banned it in the 1980s.
Netanyahu’s partnership with Kahanists, as Israelis refer to them, has been a strong campaign point for Gantz. His party has warned that Netanyahu would give key ministries, such as the Education Ministry, to the far right in a bid to secure their support.
For his part, Gantz could face some difficulties in pulling together a coalition of like-minded factions. However, some political analysts say Gantz might be able to persuade someone like Moshe Kahlon, head of the centrist Kulanu party, whose platform is more social and economic, to side with him if Gantz’s Blue and White comes out ahead.
Add to the mix possible recommendations from the parties that represent Israel’s Arab population. Although they traditionally refuse to recommend any one candidate, it is possible that at least one group would put a word in for Gantz.
There are a few other wild cards to watch, too.
Ones to watch
While most of the parties on the right, and the two ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions, have said they will recommend Netanyahu to be prime minister, Moshe Feiglin, a former Likud member, has not committed to backing either party. Feiglin now heads a libertarian party called Zehut that promotes the legalization of marijuana, as well as controversial policies such as wanting to construct a third Jewish temple on the holy Temple Mount, where the al- Aqsa Mosque now stands. Feiglin has said he will go with the party that makes him the best offer. If he comes out with seven or eight seats, he could be a kingmaker.
And though the Arab parties might very well not recommend anyone, the higher their portion of the votes, the harder it will be for Netanyahu to form a coalition. Polls currently predict they could gain as many as 12 parliamentary seats or as few as six.
With the Arab public feeling increasingly alienated by this election cycle’s campaigns and frustration about a split between the parties within their bloc, the Arab factions are widely expected to do worse this time around compared to last elections in 2015, when a record number of Israeli Arabs turned out to vote.
One well-known Israeli Arab rapper even made a song about it, calling on the community to exercise its democratic rights. In addition, the sector’s political leaders have worked hard to encourage turnout. But it will become clear only on Tuesday if efforts to get Arab voters to the polls have been effective.
Visitors to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv could be forgiven for not noticing that elections are a day away. As in previous campaigns, there are campaign billboards and posters at major intersections, but notably lacking this year are bumper stickers and banners on private cars and homes.
Most of the battle is taking place online.
Naftali Bennett, who heads the four-month-old New Right party, and his party partner Ayelet Shaked released a video Sunday that sought to be cute but bordered on the erotic to push their main message that the army must divorce itself from the Supreme Court and the legal petitions filed there. It was a message based on the case of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier who was convicted of fatally shooting an immobilized Palestinian assailant in Hebron in March 2016.
But the clip, in which Shaked sings and Bennett raps the chorus, was not the most bizarre release of the final push.
Feiglin, whose Zehut, or Identity, party, is now the biggest surprise of the election cycle, appeared Saturday night in what was supposed to be a hilarious interview with a local comedian. The two, for some unexplained reason, ended up slapping each other’s bare feet. The short clip even found its way onto fetish websites and sparked a host of copycat videos.
On Monday, Bennett’s mother, an immigrant from the United States, sent an audio message on WhatsApp pleading for people to vote for her son. It ended with a request to “please pass this on to twenty more people.”
She urged Israelis to ignore Netanyahu’s warnings that voters for smaller right-wing parties like Bennett’s would make it difficult for him to form a right-wing government.
Netanyahu’s oy gevalt!
Netanyahu on Friday launched what news media dubbed his “gevalt” campaign, referring to an exclamation of alarm in the Yiddish language. It features declarations from the long-serving prime minister that the right-wing is in mortal danger, with the aim of siphoning off votes from fellow right-wing parties so that Likud emerges as the biggest party.
It’s a recycled but effective tactic from the previous elections in 2015, when he gave an unprecedented number of radio, television and print interviews in the final days of the campaign declaring that he would lose unless people voted Likud.
Over the past few days, Netanyahu’s messaging has echoed this. On Monday, a worn-looking Netanyahu appeared in a clip warning his voters that they should not fall for media reports that Likud will be big enough to form a government.
“My friends on the right, I am warning you again, the media is trying to make you complacent,” he said. “They are saying Netanyahu will become the prime minister, but that’s not true.”
He made the same claims while standing on a bar in the renovated and trendy Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on Monday afternoon.
“Right now, if every Likudnik does not go out together with his family, together with his friends, together with the acquaintances, we will get up in the morning with Yair Lapid as prime minister of the left,” he told supporters. “Do you want this? Or do you want a right-wing government led by Likud?”
A main pillar of Netanyahu’s campaign, during which he has largely eschewed advisers in favor of himself and a small family team, has been to write off Gantz and Lapid as “leftists,” repeatedly warning that they would link up with the Arab parties and form a government.
In the final throes of the election, Netanyahu has moved markedly to the right, making a last-minute attempt to appeal to the settler community and please the hard right. Most notable was a television interview on Saturday night in which he vowed to extend Israeli sovereignty over controversial West Bank settlements if he is reelected.
Not left or right
Gantz, meanwhile, has been trying to send a message of unity and say that he belongs to neither the left nor the right. “The challenge for Gantz campaigners has been larger and heavier,” said Hermann. “They had to build a whole new image for a party. When you have an incumbent leader, it’s more about personality.”
In the last day of election campaigning on Monday, Blue and White released a video featuring former Likud ministers and well-known supporters endorsing the catchall party. Former defense minister Shaul Mofaz and former justice minister Dan Meridor, both longtime Likud members, said Gantz was the better option for leading the country.
Gantz took to the streets of Tel Aviv for one final push on Sunday — on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. His leather jacket covered with a blue vest, and his bike decorated with blue and white flags, he was followed by about 100 biker supporters.
With pundits saying this has been the most confusing and possibly the ugliest election to date, Israeli dailies reported Monday that at least 6 percent of voters have no clue whom they will choose ahead of Tuesday’s balloting.
The Israeli daily Maariv noted Monday that at least nine seats currently held by Jewish parties are still up for grabs.
“There aren’t more undecided voters in these elections than there were in previous ones, perhaps even fewer. The strong polarization this time between the two camps caused the center to disappear. Instead, what we have is the for-Bibi camp and the against-Bibi camp, and the voters feel that they have to choose between the two,” prominent Israeli pollster Mina Zemah was quoted as saying.
The legal issues
Then, of course, there are Netanyahu’s legal issues, which mean that even if he wins, it may not be long before another election is held. He faces the threat of indictment on bribery, corruption and breach-of-trust charges in three criminal cases against him.
In fact, the main reason for holding elections now, and not later this year, according to most analysts, is that Netanyahu wants to win a new political mandate before those issues catch up with him. If he wins, he would be in a stronger position to kick them down the road.