JERUSALEM — In battling to extend his run as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has warned voters of many a hazard, from unrest in the occupied territories to nuclear weapons in Iran. In the hours before the polls were to open Tuesday, he warned of another one: election-day sex.
It was part of a closing pitch that could seem strange to American political consultants who seek to convey an air of building momentum at the end of a campaign. By contrast, Netanyahu’s final message has been: I’m losing.
The final public polls showed the race between Netanyahu and former army chief of staff Benny Gantz as too close call or even slightly favoring Likud. (It is illegal to release new survey results in the final three days of the campaign.) But in hopes of motivating his base to go vote for the second time in five months, Netanyahu has been waging an all-out, all-is-lost campaign.
Showing his legendary ability to dominate the narrative, the prime minister was ever-present on national television and radio over the campaign’s final weekend, sparring with the “hostile media,” warning of widespread voter fraud in Arab neighborhoods and claiming that the country’s recent run of security and growth was in fact slipping away. Israelis, who have heard the apocalyptic tone before, call it Netanyahu’s “oy gevalt” campaign.
“Netanyahu is extremely competent at increasing the turnout of his political base,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “He did in 2015, he did in April and he’s trying to do it now.”
On Sunday night, an hour before Likud’s final rally, a party official announced that the prime minister was canceling his appearance in favor of an emergency campaign meeting. New “secret” data had emerged showing turnout in Likud strongholds would be surpassed by voting in liberal and Arab areas.
“Netanyahu’s hysteria scale has now reached level 20,” said Avigdor Liberman, former defense minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party. Whatever closing arguments Liberman and other candidates may have written for the final days were largely swamped by the prime minister’s blitz.
Liberman then released his own dark video showing a mass rally of Haredim — the black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews who are known for high voter turnout, and who have been courted aggressively by Netanyahu. “Tomorrow, the Haredim are going to war,” the ad said. “And you? You must go out and vote!”
It was Liberman, a onetime Netanyahu ally, who denied Likud the parliamentary seats it needed to form a government after April’s election, spurring Netanyahu to call for a “do-over” vote half a year later.
The unprecedented back-to-back elections have scrambled the usual calculations of Israel’s fractious political system, in part because the fears of low turnout by exhausted voters could be well-founded.
Natanel Bariente, the manager of an optical shop on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, voted for Netanyahu in April, but now he’s not sure whom to support or whether to bother.
“It’s been too crazy — I don’t even know if I’m going to vote,” Bariente said. “I’m not going to the beach and I’m not staying home; I have to work.”
The timing of the campaign, overlapping with the summer holidays, has also scrambled the usual playbooks. Some candidates stumped on the beaches near Tel Aviv, their black loafers in the sand. Gantz’s Blue and White party erected billboards in Cyprus in hopes of catching the eye of vacationing Israelis.
But in recent days, the simmering campaigns have begun to boil. On Friday, Likud and Democratic Union supporters scuffled during rival parades through Jerusalem’s main market.
“How can you support Bibi?” Miri Mejdi, 55, asked passing Likud supporters, using Netanyahu’s familiar nickname. Immediately, she was surrounded by a half-dozen campaigners who shook their white banners in her face and screamed that she would turn the country over to leftists and Arabs. “Bibi HaMelech! Bibi HaMelech!” one man shouted, “Bibi is King.”
“I’m not left-wing, I’m not right-wing,” said Mejdi, her face flushed, after the storm had passed. She described herself as a longtime Likud voter who had grown disenchanted with the prime minister’s long rule. “Netanyahu has created this fanaticism; it has divided everyone.”
But one of the Likud campaigners who argued with Mejdi disagreed. Yael Maimon, 57, who came from the town of Gedera to canvass for Netanyahu, credited him with keeping the country safe from terrorism.
“We remember the bad guys,” Maimon said of the stabbings and bus bombings that once plagued Jerusalem. She dismissed concerns that Netanyahu has been in office too long and that he faces a possible indictment, pending a hearing, on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
“That’s all fake news,” she said with a smile.
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.