Tomorrow, March 17th, Israel will hold elections for the twentieth Knesset. Twenty-six parties will compete for 120 seats in the Israeli parliament. Most opinion polls predict a narrow victory for the Zionist Union, the joint list of the leftist Labor party and Tzipi Livni’s HaTnuah party–which is left of the center. The Zionist Union is expected to win between 23 and 25 seats.
Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party has been slipping in the polls for weeks. The party went down from between 23 and 25 seats at the end of February to between 20 and 22 now.
But polls in Israel can be wildly off the mark. For example, in the month leading up to Election Day in the last three national elections (in 2006, 2009, and 2013), the polling firm Teleseker gave the Labor Party, on average, 2.5 Knesset seats more than what the party would go on to win at the ballot box — an error equal to 17% of the party’s final showing.
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The current election’s campaign has been a very nasty one and, for a long time, lacked any serious debate on the important issues that Israel faces. Instead, the campaign was centered around only one theme: “anyone but Bibi” (Netanyahu’s nickname).
Zionist Union leader Tzipi Livni set the tone for the campaign in early December last year when she used the term “impotent” to describe Netanyahu’s leadership. She also said that she decided to form a single list with Labor leader Yitzchak Herzog to “take out the garbage together,” hinting at Netanyahu.
What followed looked pretty much like a crusade against the Prime Minister by the Israeli media. For weeks, every news show on the commercial channels Arutz 10 and Arutz 2 opened with “news” about his high household expenses, the costs of garden furniture in his residency, and rebates on recycled bottles. When that didn’t help to bring Likud down in the polls, the media brought in Meni Naftali, a former employee of the Prime Minister residency. He claimed that he had suffered from abuse while working for the Netanyahus.
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The media omitted the fact that the expenses in the residence of former President Shimon Peres – who is a member of the Israeli left – were 20 times higher than those in Netanyahu’s residence. They also tried to whitewash the fact that Meni Naftali had given contradictory testimonies about the reasons he quit his job as facility manager at the PM’s residence. Naftali was later accused of sexual misconduct by a woman who used to work in the Prime Minister residency.
The media campaign against Netanyahu is led by the paper Yediot Acharonot and TV Channel Arutz 2. Noni Mozes, the publisher of Yediot Acharonot, is known for his visceral, personal hatred of Netanyahu and his wife Sarah, who has been portrayed by the media as a witch and as somebody who abuses her employees. Only last month, The Jerusalem Post finally published an article that painted an entirely different picture of Sarah Netanyahu.
Last week, Netanyahu finally responded to the “Anything but Bibi” campaign. In an interview with Arutz 2 TV and later with The Jerusalem Post, he talked about “a global campaign to bring him down.”
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The Prime Minister said that there is a massive effort, with tens of millions of dollars according to some estimates, to mobilize the Arab vote – because they know they will support Herzog to from a blocking coalition. “It’s a massive effort, and we only see a small part of that glacier.”
Netanyahu then said that the effort is not limited to individuals or Israelis. “Some governments are involved that are supporting various efforts. There is V15, an effort to mobilize left-of-center voters with huge investments. Foreign consultants are here in droves, and the money is flowing here. All is intended to make Likud lose,” Netanyahu added.
One of the foreign governments that are meddling in the Israeli elections is the Obama administration.
On Sunday, Fox News reported that “A powerful U.S. Senate investigatory committee has launched a bipartisan probe into an American nonprofit’s funding of efforts to oust Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the Obama administration’s State Department gave the nonprofit taxpayer-funded grants…
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“…a source familiar with the matter confirmed for Fox News that the probe — undisclosed until now — was both underway and bipartisan in nature.
“According to the source, the probe is looking into ‘funding’ by One Voice Movement – a Washington-based group that has received $350,000 in recent State Department grants, and until last November was headed by a veteran diplomat from the Clinton administration.”
“A subsidiary of OneVoice is the Israel-based Victory 15 campaign, itself guided by top operatives of Obama’s White House runs, which seeks to ‘replace the government’ of Israel,” Fox News reported
Because of its tax-exempt status, One Voice is legally prohibited from campaigning against Netanyahu directly.
NGO Monitor in Israel reported earlier that One Voice is the “legal-organizational channel” for Victory 2015 (V15), a campaign seeking to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2015 March elections.
NGO Monitor quotes One Voice Israel’s Executive Director Polly Bronstein as saying: “We believe that it’s critical that the majority of Israelis who are concerned about the numerous security and socio-economic challenges we face have their voices heard in the next election. We need a prime minister and a government who will be responsive to the people.”
NGO Monitor also reported that V15 posted a statement on its website saying: “Among those that donated are Daniel Lubetzky, Alon Kastiel, Uri Weiss and S. Daniel Abraham. Some organizations also donated, among them OneVoice.”
In its 2014 Annual Report, One Voice said its Israel branch would be “embarking on a groundbreaking campaign around the Israeli elections.” In partnering with V15, the two groups have operated from offices in the same building in Tel Aviv.
In Israel, V15 has been assisted by Jeremy Bird, President Obama’s deputy national campaign director in 2008 and national campaign director in 2012.
Political commentator Barry Shaw wrote on his blog at the Jerusalem Post that One Voice was formed in 2003; its inaugural board of advisers included Gary Gladstein, who used to be the chief operations officer of Soros Fund Management. The American philanthropist George Soros is funding anti-Israel groups.
“The major consulting firm working on the Israeli elections is ‘270 Strategies’ that is also headed by Bird. This company operates in elections on the principle of grassroots community organization, dividing the countries into local zones and working them incessantly and efficiently. It was the tactics that drove Obama into the White House in 2008 and kept him there in 2012,” Shaw wrote.
The Obama administration has tried to influence the outcome of the Israeli elections in other ways, too.
At the beginning of February, Obama’s Middle East mediator, Martin Indyk, openly declared his desire for regime change in Israel: “If there is a government in Israel after these elections that decides to pursue a two-state solution, then there is a way forward (in the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority).”
Indyk’s statement was followed by Obama’s response to the announcement that Netanyahu would address Congress on March 3rd. He declined to meet with Netanyahu, citing “long-standing practice not meeting foreign leaders close to polling day”. In 1996, however, the White House met an Israeli Prime Minister close to the elections. Shimon Peres was Prime Minister of Israel then, and the invitation was a clear attempt to boost Peres’ chances for re-election. Just as Clinton did then, Obama tried to influence the Israeli elections. In both cases, Netanyahu was the target.
Herzog has repeatedly claimed that Netanyahu is destroying the special bond between Israel and the United States. Obama sent his National Security Advisor Susan Rice to tell the Israeli voter that Netanyahu’s speech to Congress would be “destructive to the fabric of the relationship” between the two countries.
The standing ovations in Congress told a different story, but the Zionist Union supported by much of the Israeli media stubbornly continued to claim that relations were now destroyed and that Israel needed a new Prime Minister to restore them.
62% of the Israeli public thinks that the Obama administration is interfering in the Israeli elections, according to a poll published on March 3.
On Sunday, Netanyahu again said that “a massive fortune” of foreign money had flowed into Israel from abroad with the goal to remove him from power.
He told participants in a Right wing rally that because of this, currently the Right does not have enough votes to put together a strong governing coalition–but that closing the gap with the Zionist Union is achievable.
“If we don’t close the gap, there is a danger that a left-wing government will come into power, despite the fact that most of the public wants me as prime minister,” Netanyahu said. According to all polls, Israelis prefer Netanyahu as Prime Minister. He continues to top Herzog in public approval ratings.
There is, however, a public fatigue with Netanyahu. “After 22 years in the headlines the magic has gone”, wrote Nachum Barnea, a well know Israeli columnist, last week.
Whether the unease is enough to unseat Neatanyahu remains to be seen. In Israel’s complicated electoral system. the largest party is not always able to form a governing coalition. Israel’s president. Ruby Rivlin. will have to decide which party has the best chance of piecing together a coalition of at least 61 lawmakers. While Likud will gather only a few seats less than the Zionist Union, Netanyahu seems better positioned than Herzog to secure a majority.
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