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Netanyahu needs Lapid as his chief rival, or he’ll really be saying ‘gevalt’

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There are certain unwritten rules to Israeli election campaigns, patterns of behavior embedded in the electoral system and in the way Israelis think about their political choices.

One such rule is that voters are pulled toward larger parties as campaigns draw to a close.

Case in point: Over the last two years, Likud and Blue and White have tended to do better on election day, sometimes by as many as four seats, than they did in the last barrages of polls in the final week of the campaign.

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It’s not that pollsters underestimated the strength of both parties. Rather it’s that polls, like scientists’ observations of quantum mechanical systems, change the thing they are observing. Many Israelis respond to the polls in the final days of the race with a kind of political triage, prioritizing their broader camp over specific leaders or narrow policy preferences. Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Tel Aviv on January 15, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

For example, a great many Israelis voters now believe unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the top priority for getting Israel back on track. There are specific complaints that drive this belief: his divisive campaigning, his corruption indictment, what many view as his prioritizing of his political needs over a budget, or a more effective coronavirus response (a complaint heard often surrounding the lax enforcement of social distancing rules in Haredi towns) and so on. So great is the urgency, these voters feel, that whether he’s replaced by right-winger Gideon Sa’ar or secularist centrist Yair Lapid is a secondary issue.

Sometime around mid-March, as the race enters its final week, these voters will be paying very close attention to the polls. They won’t be asking themselves which party most closely matches their worldview, but which appears most poised to oust Netanyahu. Being perceived as the largest such party could be worth as much as six seats-worth of voters come election day, a huge electoral bonus in what is expected to be a close race.

The same is true on the other side. Netanyahu himself specialized in what Israelis call the “gevalt” campaign, named for the........

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