The broadcast of the various parties' campaign videos, which began this week, was a sure fire sign that we have reached the final stretch. The elections are in a week and a half, and the law dictates that after next weekend it is no longer permissible to publicize poll results. Therefore, next week's battle will be the battle over the final poll results.
No one can say that what happened over the last few weeks within the Center-Left camp was surprising. It was clear from the get-go that there was no room in Israel's narrow political space for three Center-Left parties. Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich understood that from the beginning. Yesh Atid (There is A Future) head Yair Lapid understood it, too. The only one who refused to get the message was Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni. Therefore, it is no wonder that of the three, it is Livni who is now paying the price.
As early as the first press conference that she convened, in which she announced the establishment of her Hatnuah party and her plan to run in the election, Livni had trouble explaining how her presence would benefit anyone. As time went by, the question of what she could possibly contribute only became more acute. After all, her last minute entry into the ring was forecast to do nothing more than harm the Center-Left camp and to bring about its disintegration, which is precisely what happened.
Yachimovich and Lapid were among those who foresaw this debacle. Each one of them met with Livni and tried to persuade her to join their party. Neither of them have any appreciation for Livni, but the damage she would cause as an external player far outweighed their disdain, so they preferred to hold their noses and to absorb her into their parties.
That is where Livni's ego came in, turning out to be much bigger than anyone could have imagined. She wanted to be at the helm, so she refused both Labor and Yesh Atid.
People close to Livni describe her as extremely impressionable. Being impressionable has its advantages. Things always hover above her, never hitting her directly. When the people that she surrounded herself with as the chairwoman of Kadima dropped like flies under police investigations, indictments and convictions, she herself remained standing. When her loyalists handed out millions of shekels to municipal candidates, wheeler-dealers and so-called vote contractors (people whose job it is to obtain votes for a certain candidate), putting the party in debt to the tune of tens of millions, Livni remained worlds away — I saw nothing, I heard nothing, I knew nothing.
A vague message
There are many people who influence Livni. Strategic advisers and spokespeople have always been the driving force behind her persona, and she yields to their dictates with ease and with pleasure. But the one person who holds the most sway over Livni is, without a doubt, Haim Ramon. After the last elections, Ramon was the one who convinced her that she was actually the big winner, prompting her to throw a bizarre victory party at a trendy Tel Aviv hotspot.
Ramon is also the man who convinced Livni to refrain from joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, arguing that his government would collapse within a year. Livni believed him, and ended up paying the price four years later when she was booted out of the Kadima leadership. Now it is Ramon, once again, who is relentlessly pulling the strings. He founded a party for Livni, which is now plummeting in the polls, days before the election.
The answer to the question why Livni founded a new party is simple. Livni and Ramon truly believed that they would overtake Labor in the polls in a matter of weeks, and then they could argue, like they did last time, that the choice was between Livni and Netanyahu. That didn't happen. Just like everything else Ramon predicted.
After Yachimovich announced last week that she would not enter a Netanyahu-led coalition after the elections, the bitter battle within the Center-Left bloc grew even more cutthroat. Labor began winning back seats it had lost in recent weeks, solely at the expense of Livni's Hatnuah. Livni realized that she needed to communicate a message that would keep her in the headlines.
On Ramon's advice, she issued the vaguest messages this election has seen so far — the Left needs to unite. Livni, who torpedoed every attempt at unity when she thought her party would be the biggest of the three, is suddenly preaching unity, now that the polls are predicting that her party will actually be the smallest in the bloc (except for Meretz, of course).
On live television, Livni called on Lapid and Yachimovich to meet with her. Yachimovich — accidentally, mind you — agreed, also on live television. Lapid felt that a meeting between the three was unnecessary, but he couldn't refuse so he also complied, embarking on an adventure. The three decided that the meeting would be held in secret, even though it had already been announced by the media. The location — Lapid's mother's house — was kept under wraps.
Livni arrived at the meeting with a document that had been prepared in advance, and she began reading from it. One of the first clauses in the document dealt with a joint billboard campaign for the three parties. Lapid and Yachimovich wondered how such a campaign would work, as it would involve three completely different groups of people, each with its own letter combination (the letters that appear on the voting slip corresponding to each party). Livni didn't have an answer. When Yachimovich and Lapid also had a host of questions in regard to the subsequent clauses on Livni's document it became clear that the meeting wouldn't yield any real breakthrough.
The next day, Livni's document was leaked to the media. Lapid and Yachimovich realized that they had been used; that they were at the meeting to serve as no more than a backdrop for Livni's spin campaign. They proceeded to launch a joint attack against Livni, portraying her call for unity as absurd.
Likud-Beytenu wakes up
Less than two weeks before the elections, the picture painted by the media polls and internal party polls is this: Likud-Beytenu has halted its downward trend, and has begun to turn things around. Habayit Hayehudi, on the other hand, peaked some two weeks ago and is now beginning to slip a bit.
Labor has also managed to stem its decline in the polls in recent weeks, and has begun climbing toward 20 Knesset seats. Yesh Atid has also made minor gains, while Livni's Hatnuah is, as aforementioned, taking a dive.
The Likud-Beytenu campaign ads feature the prime minister's speeches before the U.S. Congress and in the U.N. As far as Likud-Beytenu is concerned, the footage of these two speeches distinguishes Netanyahu from the other candidates. All the other parties can show footage of their leaders giving speeches, but none of them have the kind of decor that Netanyahu has.
One of the biggest problems that the Likud campaign has had to deal with in the last week was the fact that in-depth research revealed that many within the Russian-speaking public believe that Yisrael Beytenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman isn't running in the current election (even though he and Netanyahu are in fact running on a joint ticket). Perhaps it is because Lieberman's photo is absent from the party's campaign posters and billboards. Perhaps it is because he resigned from the cabinet (making many people believe that he had also removed himself from the running for the next government).
The same in-depth research revealed that three Knesset seats' worth of Russian-speaking voters had migrated away from the party, believing that Lieberman was no longer in the picture. As soon as this became clear, Netanyahu and Lieberman rushed to invite all the Russian media outlets to a press conference in efforts to rectify the situation and fight for every last vote.
Support in the eye of the storm
Another problem that emerged in the Likud-Beytenu campaign was the younger constituency. The party feels that there has never been a government in Israel that has done more for young people than the current Likud government, and still the party is losing the young vote to trendier parties like Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi.
This week, hundreds of young voters received an invitation from Likud activists to attend a party at the Tel Aviv harbor, together with the prime minister. The event was the brainchild of Deputy Minister Gila Gamliel, who believes that the young vote can be restored to Likud.
"It was a display of immense support by young people from across the country who came despite the stormy weather, proving above all that Netanyahu still gives hope to young voters," she says.
"It starts with personal and national security, and it extends into economic issues. Netanyahu has declared that [after the elections] the housing portfolio will be held by Likud-Beytenu. That means that he is going to tackle the problem of housing prices. That will be the big issue for the next government — you can already see people waking up."
Q: But the young voters are going with Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett.
"Not at all. We've seen all the other parties' gimmicks, as opposed to Netanyahu who is in an entirely different league. The problem is that people think that Netanyahu is already prime minister, so they can vote for other parties, and that is not the case. The other parties want to encourage this way of thinking. But the message that it is unwise to vote for the trendy parties is beginning to sink in, especially among young voters."
Q: So are you satisfied with the accomplishments of the outgoing government in terms of its young constituents?
"Just take a look at what we've accomplished: We established a freeze in tuition fees; we ensured a year of free higher education for soldiers who complete their service; we lowered public transportation costs for students by 50 percent; we approved the construction of 10,000 housing units designated for university students, thus lowering rent prices; we have founded student villages that provide free higher education in exchange for community service in the city; I personally passed a law providing maternity leave for university students; we founded 26 seed groups to establish communities in the social periphery; we opened centers for young people which essentially serve as an extension of the government to cater to young people's needs; the provision of free day care starting at age 3 also helps young people and young families, so when you look at the whole you can see that during the course of one term we have accomplished quite a bit. The unemployment rate among young people has also gone down."
Q: Do you have more plans with young people in mind?
"Absolutely. First and foremost we want to deal with the housing issue. We will compensate soldiers who complete their service, we will provide free lots to soldiers, we will offer discounts on housing in in-demand areas and we will build affordable housing for young people."
The real me
The boldest campaign ads are the ones produced by Kadima. The ads tug just enough at the viewers' heartstrings. Much of the public doesn't want to see Kadima disappear on current party chairman Shaul Mofaz's watch. At the same time, the ads portray Mofaz as Mr. Security. True, he flip-flopped, the voice-over says, but on security issues he never even blinked.
Labor's in-depth research revealed that Yachimovich is considered intimidating. Labor's campaign ads try to soften her image by filming her at her house, having her talk about her children and even open her freezer to give the viewers a glimpse of the meatballs and schnitzels she has prepared.
You won't see Yachimovich giving blazing speeches at the U.N. in her campaign ads. Instead, you will see her applying stickers to Tupperware containers full of meatballs and schnitzels so that she and her children can tell what kind of food is inside each one. It's all about image.