Gantz Adopts an Old Netanyahu Strategy, Cannibalizing Smaller Parties

Reminiscent of Netanyahu in 2015, Gantz is telling Meretz and Labor voters it’s either Kahol Lavan or Likud

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Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid during a news conference in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2019.
Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid during a news conference in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2019. Credit: \ CORINNA KERN/ REUTERS
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Two days before the 2015 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged rightist voters to abandon smaller parties for his Likud, promising that Habayit Hayehudi would be his senior coalition partner regardless of how many seats it won. The ploy worked. Habayit Hayehudi, which had been polling at 12 to 16 seats, ultimately won only eight.

It’s not clear whether Netanyahu will risk a similar gambit this time, as doing so could endanger his ability to form a governing coalition by pushing some of his future partners – several of which are polling very close to the four-seat electoral threshold – below that threshold, and hence out of the Knesset.

But Benny Gantz’s rival Kahol Lavan party has already embraced this tactic. It is actively seeking to enlarge itself at the expense of other center-left parties. And that could push Meretz below the electoral threshold.

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Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, leaders of Hayamin Hehadash, at a campaign rally, Be'er Sheva, March 31, 2019.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz

Hayamin Hehadash – a new party formed by Habayit Hayehudi’s former leaders, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked – predicts that Netanyahu won’t risk trying to cannibalize other rightist parties this time around.

“Unlike in the last election, this time Netanyahu has to form a coalition that will serve him if he’s indicted,” a senior Hayamin Hehadash official said. “In the coming term, Netanyahu won’t be able to rely on the center-left parties, so he can’t afford to sap and weaken the rightist parties that will support him.”

Hayamin Hehadash is thus more worried by another threat: Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut party. Both parties draw largely from the same voter base, and Hayamin Hehadash officials say their party has recently been losing voters to Feiglin. In the latest polls, Zehut won seven seats compared to five for Hayamin Hehadash.

Moshe Feiglin, leader of the Zehut party, at a conference in Tel Aviv, March 28, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Habayit Hayehudi, which is running this time as part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, is also more worried by another threat. “We’re not afraid of Netanyahu, but of Bennett,” one party source said.

“With Netanyahu, we have a mutual non-belligerency agreement as part of the understandings that enabled Otzma Yehudit to join [the union],” he explained. “The problem is Bennett, who promised to bring in new, secular voters. In practice, he’s doing the opposite and has been trying for a long time now to sap religious Zionist votes from us. … He goes to synagogues, bombards our voters with text messages and tries to persuade them that our ticket is too extreme and ultra-Orthodox.”

Kahol Lavan, meanwhile, has already launched a public campaign to draw voters from Labor and Meretz.

“Everyone understands that the only way to replace Netanyahu is to vote Kahol Lavan,” one of the party’s leaders, Yair Lapid, told Army Radio on Sunday. “If Kahol Lavan isn’t the largest party by at least five seats, we won’t replace Netanyahu. … Even Labor party members must vote Kahol Lavan, because today, a vote for Labor is a vote for Bibi.”

Avi Gabbay, head of the Labor Party, at a campaign rally, April 1, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Other Kahol Lavan candidates have made similar statements, and Labor officials are worried. “Gantz has apparently despaired of attracting rightist voters, so he wants to inflate his party’s size at the expense of the left-wing bloc,” a Labor source said.

Labor has countered with a campaign to brand Kahol Lavan as right-wing, which it hopes will both attract rightist voters to Kahol Lavan and return leftist voters to Labor. Party activists have handed out fake parking tickets reading, “You’ve parked in blue and white; they’ll tow you into a Netanyahu government” – a play on the fact that “blue and white,” the literal translation of Kahol Lavan, are the colors that mark legal municipal parking spaces.

Labor MK Stav Shaffir also published a video arguing that what matters isn’t which party is biggest, but which bloc is – and therefore, voting Labor does just as much to topple Netanyahu as voting Kahol Lavan.

Tamar Zandberg, head of Meretz, at a campaign rally in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Meretz, which is polling steadily at five seats, isn’t actively working to counter Kahol Lavan’s campaign, because it considers its voters unlikely to defect. But if a last-minute movement of voters from Meretz to Kahol Lavan did occur, it could threaten the party’s ability to cross the electoral threshold.

“It’s the right, not Gantz, that has a clear interest in Meretz not crossing,” one Meretz official explained. “If Meretz doesn’t cross, the election is over. … Another three or four seats will move to the right-wing bloc.”