Flowers, Iron Dome and Knocking on Doors: Israeli Parties Pull Last Stops Ahead of Election

With Election Day two weeks away, Haredi parties appeal for votes from the non-Orthodox, centrists try to sway the left and the Joint List still hasn't figured out a strategy

Kahol Lavan and Labor-Gesher campaign billboards pictured in August.
Tomer Appelbaum

With Election Day on September 17 fast approaching, the election campaign is finally stirring to life. The parties are moving their campaigns into high gear in a bid to attract more votes. (For the latest election polls - click here)

The centrist Kahol Lavan slate is looking to draw votes from the left and from Yisrael Beitenu on the right. Labor-Gesher is dispatching cars with full-size replicas of the Iron Dome anti-missile system mounted on them.

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The Democratic Union is trying to position itself as the only address in its political bloc for those who don’t want to strengthen Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, while United Torah Judaism is reaching out to non-ultra-Orthodox voters.

Here’s a wrapup of the parties’ efforts heading into the home stretch:

Kahol Lavan

In the absence of a significant shift of right-wing voters to Kahol Lavan, Benny Gantz’s party is now planning a major attempt to attract hundreds of thousands of voters from the ranks of Labor-Gesher and the Democratic Union. Kahol Lavan is determined to achieve its ambitious goal of becoming the largest party in the next Knesset.

“If Kahol Lavan is larger than Likud after the election, this will be of dramatic significance and would enable [President Reuven Rivlin] to call upon Gantz to form the government rather than Netanyahu,” says one party source who insists that even though some recent polls show the party losing five seats since the last Knesset election in April, an effective campaign can turn things around.

Kahol Lavan is not concerned about its campaign risking driving potential coalition partners’ support below the minimum 3.25 percent of the vote required for representation in the Knesset.

“The bloc theory has fallen apart,” says the source. “Only the largest party can win the election. The choice has to be between an extremist right-wing government or a unity government composed of the moderate forces.”

The party is about to launch a media blitz to promote a “largest party” campaign. Kahol Lavan lagged behind Likud in its advertising last time around, but this time it has invested a huge amount on billboards and in digital media to enhance the party’s prominence.

With internal polls showing that Kahol Lavan has lost ground to Avidgor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, it has also been seeking to convey the message that it would seek to form a unity government with Likud, Yisrael Beitenu and Labor-Gesher without the “extortion,” as they term it, of the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Kahol Lavan is also hoping that growing disaffection with Netanyahu will send a surge of voters its way and also lead some Likud voters to stay home on Election Day.

Democratic Union

In the short period left ahead of September 17, the Democratic Union will be trying to draw votes from Kahol Lavan and the Labor Party, while remaining on the defensive to prevent votes being siphoned from its own support to those parties. The party’s internal polls show that it could potentially shift three to four Knesset seats from Kahol Lavan and Labor to its own ranks.

“We are going to present voting for the Democratic Union as the only safe vote in the bloc that won’t help the right,” says a party source, since both Benny Gantz and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz have said they would join a coalition with a Likud party that is not headed by Netanyahu. The Democratic Union’s campaign ads will all highlight the message that a government with a Likud not led by the current prime minister is still a bad choice due to the party’s purported reputation for corruption and its openness to annexation in the territories “and apartheid,” the source added.

Democratic Union strategists believe that up to one and a half seats’ worth of Labor Party voters are sufficiently unhappy over the merger with Gesher’s Orli Levi-Abekasis to switch to their party. Democratic Union is also hoping to replicate the success of its Meretz faction in April’s election among the Arab electorate, despite the slate’s Ehud Barak now being a red flag to many Arab voters.

Labor-Gesher

After its dismal showing in the last election, the Labor Party is fighting to maintain its relevance in the next Knesset. The polls show that Amir Peretz’s merger with Gesher is hardly yielding the dramatic boost that Labor was hoping for. While the party is firmly above the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, it is far from the double-digit showing in Knesset seats that Peretz anticipated.

On Tuesday, Labor-Gesher inaugurated a new phase of its campaign portraying itself as the social justice equivalent of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, sending cars mounted with life-size Iron Dome replicas around the country. (Peretz was a key player in the development of Iron Dome).

Labor-Gesher has identified 120,000 potential voters who voted last time for a center-left party (as is Labor) and said they would support Labor this time. On Election Day, thousands of volunteers will fan out to these voters’ homes to ensure they make it to the polls.

Likud

Likud is concentrating its efforts on boosting turnout among right-wing voters, investing millions of shekels in its field campaign. In the less than two weeks that are left, Likud activists will be knocking on potential voters’ doors urging them to go to turn out to vote.

The party’s internal polls show the right-wing camp stuck at 58 seats. With polls also showing little chance of shifting Knesset seats between the blocs, Likud has decided to focus on maximizing the vote within the right-wing camp, especially among its own voters. Netanyahu’s recent assault on the media is also designed to get out the right-wing vote.

In addition, the prime minister is attempting to produce a pre-election diplomatic gesture from the United States that he hopes to present to the public in the coming days. In recent talks with top advisers to President Donald Trump, one option discussed was that the Americans announce a possible defense pact with Israel.

Joint List

The Joint List of Arab parties is still struggling to stir up voter interest. “We’re working day-to-day, with no sense of a clear strategy,” acknowledged one campaign source. “In 2015, the formation of the Joint List acted as a catalyst that got people to go to vote. In 2019, even after the nation-state law and all the inflammatory talk against Arabs, that’s not enough.”

In the remaining days of the campaign, the Joint List will mainly be targeting Arab voters in the 18-24 age range, trying to convince them to cast their votes. The Joint List is focusing on issues such as the nation-state law, home demolition policies, crime and education and infrastructure in Arab communities. It is also running campaign ads in Hebrew and Russian to reach out to Jewish voters.

Yisrael Beitenu

Avigdor Lieberman’s party is very pleased with all the polls predicting that Yisrael Beitenu will be the key to forming any government. For its campaign, it is sticking with more of the same: attacks on the ultra-Orthodox and highlighting religion-and-state issues.

Lieberman is also aiming his barbs at Gantz, for purportedly agreeing to sit in a government with the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties. “There’s no big difference between Netanyahu and Gantz in terms of readiness to pay the Haredim,” says Yisrael Beitenu Knesset member Oded Forer, referring to the ultra-Orthodox. On Election Day, Yisrael Beitenu will post observers in Haredi neighborhoods and polling stations to guard against voter fraud.

Yamina

The list headed by Ayelet Shaked is targeting two kinds of voters: Those who suspect Netanyahu will veer leftward after the election, and those who think Otzma Yehudit won’t win enough votes to earn a single Knesset seat. Shaked's list is also trying to attract hard-core supporters of Zehut, a right-wing libertarian party headed by former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin who dropped out of the race last week as part of a deal with Netanyahu.

Shaked constantly points out how Netanyahu had invited Barak, Livni and Lapid into his government in the past, implying that if her list does not do well enough at the polls, a unity government without Yamina could be in the offing. Yamina is trying to convince voters that a vote for Otzma Yehudit is a right-wing vote down the drain, while appealing to Zehut supporters' calls for supporting better rights for divorced fathers, making medical cannabis available by prescription and standing up to the Israel Railways’ influential union.

Otzma Yehudit

The Kahanist party’s is focussed on persuading voters it can win enough votes to make it into the Knesset. Two recent polls indicate its support has grown a bit, though it is still not predicted to win enough votes to earn a Knesset seat. Otzma Yehudit also believes it can attract some Zehut voters, maintaining that the only difference between the parties is their position on religion-state matters, though Zehut also had a much more detailed economic plan than Otzma Yehudit offers. The party also has its sights set on Yamina voters, with an effort underway to paint Naftali Bennett, the former education minister, as leaning toward the left and implying that his connection with hardliner Bezalel Smotrich is flimsy at best.

United Torah Judaism

Despite their considerable success in the last election, the Haredi parties are genuinely afraid that this time they could find themselves in the opposition. Thus, UTJ has decided to take the unusual step of directing a serious campaign effort outside the Haredi world, and hanging posters of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky on billboards visible to motorists on Tel Aviv's Ayalon Highway. UTJ MK Yitzhak Pindrus says the party is also campaigning hard because it feels that controversy over religion-and-state issues have gained momentum.

Party strategist Avi Greenzweig says UTJ’s social media campaign is focused “outward to lower the level of hostility toward the Haredi public and inward for the Haredim who are on social media and want to see that their party knows how to put up this kind of fight.” And as in previous campaigns, the party will again try to get every voter to bring at least one other person to the polls.

Shas

In the home stretch of the campaign, the party has changed tactics from spotlighting social issues to spotlighting Jewish tradition and Shabbat. Chairman Aryeh Deri is crisscrossing the country to meet with activists and local rabbis acting as the party’s ambassadors, especially in peripheral towns, beyond Israel's center. “The emphasis is on the traditional public,” say party officials, using a common euphemism for Israelis who observe some traditions without necessarily being Orthodox Jews.

Shas is also planning to stage rallies in various locations, led by Deri, Shas MKs and Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the head of the party's Council of Torah Sages. As in the last round of voting, the party is also stressing the message that a vote for Shas is a vote for Netanyahu.