Analysis

6 Days to Israel Election: Will Doomsday Polls Galvanize or Demoralize Center-left Voters?

With Gantz running a tired campaign in the face of Netanyahu's last-ditch effort to maintain power, center-left voters have started despairing before the polls even open for the Israeli election

Benny Gantz at a Kahol Lavan party meeting in Knesset in Jerusalem, February 21, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Over the past 40 years or so, Israelis who vote for centrist or leftist parties have fine-tuned their traditional ritual for national elections.

When elections are called, center-leftists are critical of their candidates, appalled at their camp’s internal bickering and generally resigned to defeat. Then, as the election campaign heats up, they get excited despite themselves, buoyed by polls that point the way to paradise. Their enthusiasm peaks on Election Day, often lasting for hours after the exit polls, capped, on more than occasion, by their leaders’ premature victory speeches, for which they are ridiculed for the rest of their lives.

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Then, the pollsters on TV start hemming and hawing. The figures on the graphs begin changing for the worse. Dread sets in. Finally, on cue, there’s the dramatic reversal, the sense of crushing defeat and the bitter but all-too-familiar disappointment that paves the way for disillusionment and despondency. Until the next time.

In the lead-up to Monday’s election, however, something appears to have gone haywire. Long established timelines have been disrupted. Instead of waiting for the actual election results, center-left voters have started despairing before the polls have even opened.

A series of public opinion surveys published this week show Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud overtaking Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan for the first time since the series of new elections were called. Although the polls do not indicate any significant change in the size of the two opposing political camps, thus ensuring continued deadlock, the rush to Netanyahu’s side has devastated center-left voters. Doomsday, it seems, came early this year.

The apparent shift in voter preferences was doubly confounding for center-leftists and not only because it upset their hitherto stable lead in the polls, a lead which may have lulled them into complacency.

Monday’s ballot, after all, was supposed to be in the bag, an exception that proved the rule: Enough Israelis presumably still have enough sense not to elect a prime minister whose criminal trial starts two weeks after votes are counted, or so center-leftists allowed themselves to believe.

Not that Netanyahu’s ascent requires elaborate explanation: He has been waging a hyperactive election campaign, working crowds from early morning to late at night when he’s not crisscrossing the globe for photo opportunities with foreign leaders. Netanyahu has severed his brakes, taken out all the stops, broken all the rules, ignored any notion of decency and made promises from here to eternity, whether he can keep them or not.

He manipulates the media, dominates the headlines and exploits the stature and authority of his office to the fullest. He has exerted total control over his campaign agenda, to the extent that his criminal indictments have been pushed to the sidelines and are slowly receding from public memory.

Gantz and Kahol Lavan, on the other hand, have been infuriatingly passive. They maintained a low profile throughout most of the campaign, promising a last-minute flourish before the finish line. By the time they got there, however, Netanyahu had successfully stained Gantz with uncorroborated allegations of corruption while his social media henchmen manipulated Gantz’s admittedly frequent stumbles in interviews, depicting the former army chief of staff as a bumbling fool.

Benjamin Netanyahu visits East Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood, February 20, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

With one candidate seemingly hesitant, tongue-tied and noticeably helpless in the face of his rival’s relent less attacks, the other is hyped up, brimming with vigor, raring to go and willing to dig deep in the mud in order to sully anyone who stands in his way, it’s not surprising that public opinion has shifted in Netanyahu’s favor.

The cardinal question is whether in the face of apparent defeat, center-left voters will be paralyzed into inaction or galvanized instead to make a last-ditch effort to snatch victory from the closing jaws of defeat.

Because whatever the polls say, election results hinge on voter participation, which, in Monday’s ballot, is harder than ever to predict. Given that this is Israel’s third straight election, voters are universally disinterested in the election campaign and as disgusted with politicians as never before. How that will translate into voter participation rates is anyone’s guess.

Will Israeli Arabs repeat their 60% voter participation rate from the previous September election, or will they come out in greater numbers and deliver their Joint List one more seat for each additional 5% who come out to vote? Are hitherto wavering Likudniks really rallying to Netanyahu’s side, or only saying they are in the polls? Will the center-left exhaust every last drop of potential support or will their lethargic campaign carry over into Election Day?

No one knows for sure, which keeps alive the remote but tantalizing possibility that the center-left’s Election Day ritual hasn’t just been changed – it’s about to be reversed altogether. Imagine: Center-leftists approach the publication of election results with the same kind of despondency traditionally  reserved for the post-election wake. Then, as the results come in, frustration turns to astonishment and then to jubilation when it emerges that the polls got it all wrong and the center-left has done much better than expected. For once, the after-party will be for a good reason.

It’s a pipe dream, of course, but at least this provides a source of renewed disappointment when it doesn’t come true. Traditions, especially Jewish traditions, are meant to be kept.