In the Polls, Gantz Reaches a Place Where No Netanyahu Rival Has Been Since 2006

The public opinion surveys were done fast and furious Thursday, but the Gantz-Lapid alliance surprised on the upside, always a good sign

Benny Gantz and and Yair Lapid at the launching of their Kahol Lavan electoral alliance, February 21, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

After Benny Gantz’s maiden political speech, the polls on the parties’ positioning in the next Knesset stirred center-leftists from their slumber. But the polls released after the unveiling of the electoral alliance between Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi sent center-leftists preparing their suits for the victory celebrations. And they haven’t needed such suits for 13 years.

The polls showed 35 or 36 seats for the new Kahol Lavan, versus 26 to 32 for a Likud led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Is the center-left’s joy justified? A number of signs say it is.

But first, note that the polls that were released Thursday are still problematic. They were conducted over an especially short time, they were launched the minute the Big Bang was announced Thursday morning, and they were published that evening. Such polls are normally done over two days.

Also, all this happened while the political map was changing by the minute. As the potential voter was on the phone answering questions, various combinations of parties were being considered.

This is why, for example, in the Channel 12 News poll, Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al was running alone, with the other three Arab parties of the defunct Joint List alliance grouped together, even though that’s not what happened in the end. Instead there will be two alliances of two Arab parties, a move that will probably change the whole political map after the election.

The quickness of the polls, as it were, also provides a partial explanation of the big differences among them. The Channel 13 News poll showed Netanyahu trailing by his largest margin in a decade, 10 seats behind Gantz and Lapid, while the Channel 11 poll showed only a three-seat difference.

Channel 13 News gave the new right-wing alliance led by Habayit Hayehudi eight seats and Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash only five seats, while on Channel 12 News, Bennett had six seats and Habayit Hayehudi, his previous party, only four. It’s unlikely we will see such large disparities this coming week.

In any case, the numbers are optimistic about Gantz. First, it’s justified to be impressed by the numbers for Gantz and Lapid’s Kahol Lavan alliance: 35 or 36 seats is remarkable. No center-left party (or any party not Likud) has reached such numbers since March 2006 – when Kadima won the election and Ehud Olmert stayed on as prime minister.

These figures are also impressive compared with the expectations of the people who pushed for the new alliance. If we look back at all the polls that examined such a linkup as a theoretical possibility, we see that Gantz-Lapid reached the top of the range. Most polls placed them at lower levels, 34 seats at the most, and even all the way down to 26 a few times.

But many experts say that theoretical scenarios are usually more flattering than reality; it’s easier to tell a pollster you’ll vote for a fantasy option. To commit to a real option is something else.

So at least according to the polls, the new alliance achieved the maximum the scenarios imagined – and that’s definitely a good reason for the people behind the tie-up to be satisfied.

Where did these seats come from? It’s hard to give a precise answer; the sample populations for the polls are independent, and pollsters don’t usually ask respondents what they would have said if they had been asked a week earlier. Even examining the changes from week to week is problematic; it can often hide votes that have shifted but were “offset.”

Still, I’ll now try to cautiously estimate where the votes shifted. I’ll start with the easy part: 30 or 31 seats for Kahol Lavan came from voters of the two parties that make up the alliance. Before the linkup, Lapid’s Yesh Atid was polling 10 to 12 seats, and Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael was polling 18 to 21 seats.

Assuming that very few voters moved away from either party because of the union, where did the other five or six come from?

The automatic response would be to say from Labor, which showed a loss of two or three seats – and obviously most of these went to Kahol Lavan. Further to the left, Meretz also lost a seat in last week’s polls that may well have gone to Kahol Lavan, the first alternative to establish a government the leftists have had this election campaign.

So this leaves only two or maybe three seats up in the air. And this is what interests both Gantz and Netanyahu most: Three smaller parties on the right, Kulanu, Shas and Hayamin Hehadash, all lost a seat from the polls a week earlier.

Two possibilities exist. The first is that these seats shifted directly to Gantz; this scenario worries Netanyahu. The more likely option is that the smaller right-wing parties lost seats to Netanyahu, while some Likud voters switched to Gantz, who suddenly turned into a real option to replace Bibi.

This is how Likud may not have lost seats in total, but the right-wing parties did. And this worries Netanyahu much more: Gantz has become a real option with a real chance to be prime minister. It’s not at all certain that Gantz will win, but it’s clear that this time the race is competitive.