Israeli politics will never be the same after the current campaign for the March 17 general election. The old solemn, self-absorbed, holier-than-thou images are being blown away by none other than the widely-predicted loser, Binyamin Netanyahu. He has discovered the social media, using them for an uncharacteristic light comedy act which has gone viral. This and other campaign tactics this week confirmed his Likud party as frontrunner in the race for re-election, ahead of his leading rival, the Zionist Camp (Labor) led jointly by Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
Likud’s contenders launched campaigns charted by their strategists that hinged on the presumption that Netanyahu and his Likud were dead in the water because everyone was fed up with their long rule. Only a sucker would vote for Netanyahu, his rivals declared on street placards. They counted on breezing through to election, boosted by a few discreditable scandals to drive the last nails in the incumbent's coffin.
But those scandals have proved to be too light to stick or become boomerangs.
Sneering at the Bibi’s weakness for high quality ice cream cut little ice, and Likud has weathered the imputations that his wife Sarah bought garden furniture for their villa in Caesarea at taxpayers’ expense, pocketed the change from the return of empty plastic bottles and allegedly mistreated former domestic staff at the official residence.
This week, Netanyahu himself presented his critics with a loaded issue: As acting Education Minister, he sacked three members of the panel which selects the best and brightest cultural achievers worthy of the high-prestige Israel Prize – two judges for the literature award and one for the cinema prize.
The rest of the panel trooped out in a body and a long lie of professors and writers stepped up to indignantly declare a collective boycott on the prize – not the first time was this award ridden with scandal.
Reproved by the attorney general Friday, Feb. 12, for improperly ordering dismissals during the run-up to an election, Netanyahu recanted.
But as the storm of protest went on, its distinguished authors were exposed as a tight, closed clique held together by common generation, ethnic and gender background and political orientation.
Blowing away a few cultural cobwebs was not seen as an altogether bad thing by the clique’s outsiders and has stirred interest among former would-be non-voters.
Several party leaders started their campaigns in the certainty that the prime minister’s office would fall vacant on March 17 – to the point that four of them declared the job theirs: Herzog, his partner Tzipi Livni, centrist Yair Lapid (Future) and Avigdor Lieberman of the right-of-center Israel Beitenu.
So confident were they of victory that they neglected to draw up slates of candidates attractive enough to appeal to the electorate. Most were packed with irrelevant candidates for Knesset seats or nonentities.
In two weeks, this confidence has eroded to the point that the would-be prime ministers are “ready to consider” senior portfolios in the next government, like defense, finance or foreign affairs.
The Likud leader used this miscalculation of his rivals' strengths by directing the voter to choose between two major camps – right or left. The opposition slogan: “Just not him,” made way this week for: “It’s either Likud or them.”
Netanyahu and his ministers turned attention from petty scandal to serious business: Iranian and Hizballah forces were advancing on the Syrian Golan and Israel’s northern border, they pointed out; the campaign to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran would peak with the prime minister’s address to the US Congress on March 3; Islamist terrorists were encroaching on Israeli’s borders from the south.
The prominence of these threats is raising questions anew in the electorate about the fitness of Netanyahu’s untried and inexperienced opponents for “keeping the country safe” – as several candidates heard this week when they appeared before a big high school audience.
It was to reach the 130,000 young first-time voters that Netanyahu made his first systemic dip into the social media – both to get his messages across and aired widely and as entertainment by means of professionally produced light comedy video skits.
The latest won 300,000 likes on Facebook. The ratio between that figure and the ratings of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Yitzhak Herzog is roughly 9:1 – something of a bellwether for the election prospects of three of the leading candidates.
Though Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and other online media, Likud is reaching to voters outside its traditional constituency, both with serious messages and professionally produced comic relief. This input is carefully calibrated for effect – in contrast with the frenetic use made by former Finance Minister, the Future Party leader Yair Lapid in his last and current campaigns.
The tally of users and responders cannot be doctored and therefore is a truer representation of the state of national opinion at any given moment than the traditional opinion polls.
Likud has also turned to poaching heavily on allies within the right-of center camp, rather than seeking to converting opponents. Bennett is feeling the pain and complains. He is talked down by the argument that Likud needs to outdo left-of-center Zionist Camp in numbers if the President is to nominate Netanyahu to form the next government.
For now the campaign is trending in Netanyahu’s favor. But anything could change in the 31 days still to go up to election day.