Analysis

A Week to Election: Netanyahu Takes the Lead, but Throws Rival Gantz a Lifeline

Netanyahu's Likud grows stronger and seizes the lead from Gantz's weakening Kahol Lavan, although recent shifts in public opinion don’t herald a victory for either bloc

Netyanayhu tours Har Homa neighborhood in East Jerusalem, February 20, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

The umpteenth round of fighting between Israel and Gaza, on the eve of the umpteenth Israeli election, will pass and by Election Day on March 2, not a memory of it will remain, except in the scarred souls of tens of thousands of children on both sides.

Rocket-battered Likud supporters in the southern town of Ashkelon and Sderot will still vote for Benjamin Netanyahu, because he is their beloved king, and there is none other. Just as leftists from the kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip, who don’t matter in the least to the right-wing prime minister, would vote for the left even if Gaza were Geneva and its main exports weren’t rockets, but chocolate and cheese. That’s how it was in previous elections, from 2013 onward, and that’s also how it will be in the first election of 2020.

Bernie, Bibi and the brutal occupation: Listen to Gideon LevyHaaretz Weekly Ep. 64

There are five working days left until Election Day, and something is changing in the opinion polls, which used to be pools of stagnant water. Likud is growing stronger and has seized the lead from the weakening Kahol Lavan. The trend shifted in the latter half of last week and strengthened in the early part of this week.

The reasons, apparently, are as follows: Likud’s successful repetitive campaign that Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz “has no government without the Joint List,” an alliance of Arab-majority parties; the opening of an investigation against Fifth Dimension, a company Gantz chaired (even though Gantz isn’t a suspect and is running against someone charged with bribery and fraud whose trial is just around the corner); and the feeling among left-wing voters that Kahol Lavan is strong and in the lead, and since neither side will win a clear victory in any case, they can indulge in ideological voting.

Thus according to the parties’ latest internal polls, Kahol Lavan has lost about half a seat’s worth of votes to Likud and about 1.5 seats’ worth to the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance. Other voters have returned to the undecided column.

One could also posit, with all due caution and from a safe distance, that the coronavirus panic has contributed to Likud’s rise as well. Netanyahu is running a campaign with high visibility and maximal relevancy. He’s convening meetings and modeling control of the situation, just as he did with the Carmel forest fire of 2010 in northern Israel. Netanyahu will always try to come across as a go-getter while handling a state of emergency. I reality, he tries to grab as many photo-ops as he can.

The premier has also coined a slogan that jibes with anxiety: “Over-preparedness is better than under-preparedness.” Under the aegis of this slogan, Israel has adopted a much more stringent policy toward visitors than other countries in the wake of the virus outbreak.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz.
Nir Elias/REUTERS

Kahol Lavan has completely disappeared. Yet a health crisis – even if only a potential one – provides a priceless opportunity for any opposition to attack, highlight failures of those in power and propose different ways of dealing with it.

Just a week or two ago, Gantz and his ssociates were leading a campaign featuring Israel's crumbling health system, which they termed “Netanyahu’s Case 5000” (a play on both his criminal cases, which the police labeled as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, and the number of people who have died of infections in our overcrowded, collapsing hospitals). But nobody was interested. Now, with a genuine apocalypse at the gate – one that could expose the health system in all its nakedness and failure if it actually arrives – they’ve moved to the sidelines and are waiting for instructions.

On Monday, Netanyahu threw Gantz a lifeline – flimsy and partial, but nevertheless something he could work with – by giving a series of interviews to sympathetic media outlets with easygoing interviewers. In the first, he was asked whether he would try to pass the so-called French law, which grants sitting prime ministers immunity from prosecution, if he formed the next government, and he didn’t rule it out. In subsequent interviews, he denied it vehemently, saying, “I thought about this, but I’ll smash the ridiculous charges against me in court even without the French law.”

He told the truth only in the first interview, when he unintentionally revealed what he’s really thinking (yes, even the great Bibi slips up sometimes). This is the 2020 version of last year’s “What? What are you talking about?” when he was asked about advancing an immunity law to protect himself from prosecution. This is Kahol Lavan's chance to resume discussion about Netanyahu's legal woes that seem to have been forgotten.

The recent shifts in public opinion don’t herald a victory for either bloc. As long as Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party is stable at seven to eight seats, which it seems to be, Netanyahu’s rightist/ultra-Orthodox bloc remains far from the 61 seats it needs to form a government. And Kahol Lavan is completely irrelevant, since its bloc includes 13 to 14 seats from the Joint List, which is not only boycotted as a partner in a governing coalition, but also refuses to participate in any such coalition.

So where does it leave Likud and Kahol Lavan? They can only try and beat each other to become the biggest party. Kahol Lavan must retake the lead from Likud, even if only by a single seat, to be able to once again declare “We won,” as it did after September’s election. Netanyahu needs to win on points to remain in the saddle, both in his party and in his bloc, even if only en route to a fourth election.

If Gantz were to open a lead of three or four seats over the prime minister, as some earlier polls predicted, Netanyahu’s grip on his bloc would become shaky. And it’s impossible to know how that would influence further developments.