Netanyahu Vaccine Obsession Hasn’t Swung Election to Him

Vaccine “world champions.” Israel’s “the first” to return to normal life. Other leaders in awe of Benjamin Netanyahu’s achievements in taming the pandemic.

In the weeks before Tuesday’s election, Israel’s prime minister flooded social media with flattering portrayals of the country’s world-leading vaccination program to obscure memories of painful and mismanaged lockdowns and edge out a crowded field of challengers. The latest polls suggest it hasn’t given him the dramatic boost he sought.

Netanyahu Vaccine Obsession Hasn’t Swung Election to Him

Netanyahu’s Likud party is likely to get between 30 to 32 of parliament’s 120 seats, according to a batch of final polls released Friday, a slight increase over the past few weeks, but lower than the 36 it won last year.

Likud is still on course to be the biggest party, and together with old allies and other nationalist factions is close to a 61-seat majority. But with 13 parties in contention to win representation, and a prospective kingmaker refusing to say who he’d join with, post-election jockeying will be intense.

“People have made up their minds on Netanyahu, for better or worse,” said Simon Davies, a Tel Aviv-based pollster at Number 10 Strategies. “There is only so much the vaccines can do to sway the relatively few undecided voters between blocs.”

Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party who has hammered the premier over his alliance with right-wing ideologues and ongoing corruption trial, leads a camp running neck-and-neck in the race.

Israel’s economy has largely reopened, almost half the population has been fully inoculated, and Covid-19 cases continue to drop. So it’s little surprise Netanyahu chose to focus on his leadership of the vaccine drive in more than half of 608 Facebook posts in the three months since elections were called. Less welcome news, like an unemployment rate of 18% and Iran’s accelerating nuclear program, hasn’t got much of a mention.

Netanyahu Vaccine Obsession Hasn’t Swung Election to Him

On Sunday, the prime minister told Army Radio there would be no more lockdowns because “there is no need for it.”

“Countries are imposing lockdowns because they don’t have vaccines,” he said.

To give the inoculation drive a boost, the country is imposing a raft of precautions on election day, ranging from remote complexes for the ill and quarantined, and additional polling stations to prevent crowding.

Netanyahu’s social-media blitz has included clips of Pfizer Inc. Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla citing the prime minister’s “obsession” with vaccines for his decision to flood Israel with shots, and a South Park episode in which an Israeli jet delivered boxes of jabs to grateful inhabitants of a fictional Colorado town.

The stakes are high for Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, as his graft trial proceeds. Staying in office offers his only chance of passing laws shielding a sitting premier from prosecution.

In light of the forecast deadlock, he’s urging right-wing voters to fend off a government headed by Lapid, whom he portrays as a clueless left-winger unable to solve economic woes or fight for Israel diplomatically.

“Lapid’s name carries strong associations for self-defining right wing voters,” said Davies. “It’s like at the Trump rallies when he said ‘Hillary’ and everyone then says, ‘Lock her up.’ Netanyahu is betting that putting Lapid at the forefront will get him to 61.”

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