Bleeding Seats, Gantz Changes His Strategy Days Before Israeli Election

Gantz makes new moves to woo left-wing voters as recent public opinion polls show that Netanyahu has widened the lead over his Kahol Lavan party

Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, speaks during an election campaign rally in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel, February 25, 2020.
CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS

With less than a week to go until Israel's third election in one year, Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan party has decided to employ a new strategy to win over voters from both sides of the political aisle in an attempt to remain the biggest party in the Knesset after recent polls have shown a decline in public support.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has widened the lead over Gantz in the latest public opinion polls, with the premier's Likud party surpassing his rival's Kahol Lavan for the first time in this election campaign. According to the polls, Netanyahu is also perceived by voters as the best candidate for prime minister.

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Kahol Lavan, which so far has gone after "soft" and undecided right-wing voters, lost four Knesset seats mainly to the center-left bloc according to the polls. But the surveys indicate that some respondents have crossed over to the right-wing bloc.

“The campaign is stuck,” a source familiar with Kahol Lavan’s future plans said. “The attempt to shift rightward isn’t really working. This could still be reversible, but the party is now preparing to cut its losses, garner as many seats as possible and readies for a fourth election round.”

Some of Gantz’s associates say that left-wing voters abandoned Kahol Lavan because its campaign has been excessively leaning to the right. Others claim reports of the new investigation launched into Fifth Dimension, an artifical intelligence company once headed by Gantz and now plagued with a possible criminal probe. Still others cite the resurfacing recordings of Kahol Lavan member Gabi Ashkenazi in the Harpaz Affair as a factor that may have driven away potential voters.

Kahol Lavan officials say they have been aware in recent days that Likud has been gaining momentum. “We didn’t fall off our chairs when the recent polls were released, we predicted this trend beforehand,” a party source said.

“It’s a close battle, which will be decided by voter turnout; whoever succeeds in bringing out more voters despite coronavirus, the weather and the general feeling of despair, will win the election.

"Something in the campaign wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. The fact that Kahol Lavan continued to poll the same number of seats during a lengthy period led many of our supporters on the left to move to the left-wing Labor-Gesher-Meretz slate in order to expand the bloc, rather than remain and strengthen us,” the source added.

'Gantz is not our rival, he's our partner'

These recent developments have led Gantz to change tactics. Instead of a campaign aimed at carefully segmented voters, Kahol Lavan is now employing a measure to woo voters from both the right and left-wing.  

Like Netanyahu, Gantz is now investing efforts in fieldwork, and appearing in multiple election events across the country. On Tuesday, the Kahol Lavan leader spoke in Jerusalem, toured Tel Aviv, took part in an event in Israel's north, and attended a large rally in Ramat Gan. On Saturday night he will again leap from one television studio to another, as his associates believe that the personal and direct connection with undecided voters will make the difference the party needs.

Meanwhile, in a last-ditch effort to attract Left-wing voters, Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair Lapid wrote on Twitter: “If you planned to vote for Labor-Gesher-Meretz, ask yourselves one question: What will be left of Israeli democracy if Bibi wins by even one seat?” Lapid's remarks are only a harbinger of a broader move that is expected to continue until Election Day.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past a Likud election campaign poster depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem February 25, 2020.
AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Kahol Lavan has distilled a new message, aimed at persuading the public that it’s essential to preserve it as the largest party in the next Knesset.

“If Likud gets one seat more than Kahol Lavan, Netanyahu can claim that he has gotten legitimacy from the public to continue conducting his trial [for three criminal charges] from the prime minister’s seat,” said a source involved in Kahol Lavan's new campaign. “We, on the other hand, are telling the public that if Kahol Lavan will be larger than Likud by at least one seat, we have a good chance to break up the right-wing bloc. Unlike Netanyahu, right-wing parties will find it difficult to take part in a fourth election campaign.”

As opposed to Lapid, Labor-Gesher-Meretz leader Amir Peretz chose to convey a conciliatory message, in keeping with the positive campaign he’s been conducting during this election season. “We won't allow any squabbles or wars within the bloc,” Peretz said. "Gantz is not our rival, he's our partner.”

The Labor campaign headquarters expressed satisfaction with  recent polls, which gave the joint slate nine to 10 seats, and set 12 seats as their new goal.

Apart from trying to siphon off left-wing voters, Kahol Lavan clarified it will continue targeting undecided voters on the right. The party will mainly focus on the disgust it said some of the public feels towards Netanyahu and the fact that three out of Kahol Lavan's four co-leaders served as Israel's chiefs of staff. The party also plans to remind the public Netanyahu’s double messages on whether he will try to advance a law protecting a sitting prime minister from prosecution after the election, a move that might halt legal proceedings against him.  

Moreover, Gantz hasted this week to foil any effort by Netanyahu to declare that the next term would be his last as prime minister. “I’m going to give you a spoiler,” he said while speaking at the Besheva newspaper's Jerusalem Conference on Monday.

“Now he plans to announce that this will be his last term. That there are only ‘a few historic moves’ that he still needs to carry out. I don’t believe him. He wants only one thing – to pass a law that will enable him to evade prosecution.”

Gantz and his associates are also expected to put an emphasis on the “chaotic” manner with which Netanyahu has been handling Israel's security issues – for example, the premier's decision to appoint Naftali Bennett as defense minister merely to thwart the possibility that the far-right alliance Yamina he heads would join a government led by Kahol Lavan.  

Gantz will also play on the fact that Israel's cabinet relies on ministers like Miri Regev and Bezalel Smotrich, who are inexperienced in dealing with security challenges, while Kahol Lavan is headed by former chiefs of staff, who seek to be cabinet members after the election.  

Netanyahu, for his part, continues to slam Kahol Lavan's leadership. “Something bad is happening to Benny Gantz. Maybe as a result of the pressures of public life, or the exposure of the Fifth Dimension affair,” Netanyahu said at a campaign rally in central Israel.

According to Netanyahu, this raises questions whether "we can bet our future" by voting for Gantz. Netanyahu added that being prime minister "can be very challenging, and I just think that it's too much for him to handle. And I’m not talking about his political views, but about something that is visible in every speech he delivers, every appearance he makes."  

Netanyahu also bashed Kahol Lavan member Ashkenazi, saying that in the recordings concerning the Harpaz affair – which are under a gag order – the former army chief could be heard saying “shocking things about our Druze brothers … Ashkenazi will retire from political life a minute after you hear these recordings,” Netanyahu said.

Ashkenazi in response wrote on Twitter: “If he thinks that I can’t remain in politics, why did Netanyahu offer me not long ago to be Israel's defense minister? I won’t stoop to his level. If he is not ashamed when he lies, I am ashamed for him.”

Speaking in an interview with the Walla news website on Wednesday, Interior Minister Arye Dery surprisingly backed Ashkenazi's tweet, saying that Netanyahu in fact offered him the defense portfolio after the September 17 election.