As Election Nears, Netanyahu and Gantz Turn to Small-scale Campaigning

Likud and Kahol Lavan gear up for the March 2 vote, turning to minorities and niches to boost their numbers

Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz at an election conference in Rishon Letzion, February 8, 2020.
Tomer Appelbaum

In an effort to break their tie in the polls, Likud and Kahol Lavan are each wooing small groups of voters in a bid to tip the Knesset scale in its favor by two or three seats, at the other’s expense.

Kahol Lavan is targeting LGBT voters, religious Zionists, members of the country’s Druze minority and first-generation immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. It’s also going after even smaller groups – high-tech workers, retirees and immigrants from English- and French-speaking countries – though it’s not spending much money on them.

In the campaign for the September election, Likud targeted vegans and young supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana use, to little effect. This time it’s reaching out small-business owners and taxi drivers, among other constituencies.

Ethiopian Israelis are a major battleground over which both parties are fighting. Likud’s U.S. advisors argue that most Ethiopian Jews in Israel are rightists, and those who voted Kahol Lavan last time did so mainly out of anger at the Likud-led government.

The effort to woo them back is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persuaded Gadi Yevarkan, a former Kahol Lavan MK who was born in Ethiopia, to defect from Kahol Lavan. The government also recently proposed establishing a committee of inquiry into the Justice Ministry’s department for investigating allegations of police misconduct, given Ethiopian Israeli criticism of its probes into police brutality.

Kahol Lavan thinks it received two to three seats’ worth of votes from Ethiopian Israelis in September, but fears those votes may return to Likud along with Yevarkan. A source in the party’s campaign headquarters explained that while it’s very hard to poll this community, the party did well last time at polling stations in Ethiopian Israeli neighborhoods.

To retain these voters, the party is making use of another Ethiopian Israeli MK, Pnina Tamano-Shata. She has met with many voters in the community and has also proposed a parliamentary inquiry committee into anti-Ethiopian discrimination. In addition, Kahol Lavan has promised to bring the remaining Ethiopian Jews and Falashmura – descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity – over from Ethiopia if it wins.

Kahol Lavan is also hoping for two seats’ worth of votes from Russian speakers, even though it didn’t do well among this community in either the September or the April election. This effort is being led by Russian-born MK Yoel Razvozov and Andrey Kozhinov, a Russian-language journalist who was given the 33rd slot on Kahol Lavan’s Knesset slate after Yevarkan defected.

In the religious Zionist community, Kahol Lavan is wooing the liberal wing, hoping to benefit from its disaffection with the growing power of the movement’s ultra-Orthodox wing. The party ran an advertisement on this theme last week, which Likud sought to counter with an ad proclaiming itself “religious Zionism’s home.”

But many religious Zionists criticized the Kahol Lavan ad as offensive. In a play on hardal – the Hebrew acronym for Haredi religious Zionists, which is also the Hebrew word for mustard – it featured a mustard stain on the Israeli flag.

Kahol Lavan admitted the ad was a mistake. But said it plans to run other ads on the same theme, featuring quotes from hardal rabbis assailing military service for women and moderate religious organizations like Tzohar.

In the Druze community, where Kahol Lavan did well in September, the party hopes to woo additional voters through a series of campaign rallies and parlor meetings organized by Druze MK Gadeer Mreeh. Party leader Benny Gantz will appear at one such rally, in Abu Snan, on Sunday.

Efforts to woo the gay community are being led by MK Eitan Ginzburg, a former mayor of Ra’anana who is openly gay. In addition, the party is targeting voters whose main concern is the environment, but this is considered a very small group so Kahol Lavan isn’t putting much effort into it.

Likud, for its part, is courting small-business owners through a Facebook group to which tens of thousands of such businesspeople belong. The group was established by members of the small business community last year. Netanyahu’s outreach to this community is being led by Tsofia Nahon, whom he recently named as his advisor on small businesses.

As for taxi drivers, they are a traditional Likud constituency, but they were outraged by the Transportation Ministry’s fare reform last year. Consequently, Netanyahu met with taxi drivers in his office last week and announced that the reform had been frozen, and he may well scrap it entirely.