Israel Election 2019: Netanyahu’s Tired Opponents Left Waiting for Him to Make a Mistake

Opposition leaders Avi Gabbay and Benny Gantz are hoping the prime minister can be ousted on Tuesday but, following them on Election Day, they seem to be pinning their hopes on right-wing parties failing to cross the electoral threshold

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz going to vote in Rosh Ha'ayin, April 9. 2019.
Moti Milrod

On the morning of the election, Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay knew he had achieved at least one thing to bring down the government: He convinced a lifelong Likud voter to vote Labor — his mother, Sarah.

To make sure she broke the habit of a lifetime, he even showed up at the polling station in the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa where she was voting.

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As he pushed her wheelchair into the school where the ballot boxes were set up, Gabbay was asked if he realized he was probably the first Labor leader to start Election Day across the Green Line (beyond Israel’s internationally recognized borders) and if this was yet another sign of how he’d taken his party to the right.

“Come on,” he answered. “A united Jerusalem has always been Labor’s policy, and I grew up in Armon Hanatziv,” referring to a nearby neighborhood situated mostly on the eastern side of the Green Line.

Labor has also nearly always been either the ruling party or the main opposition contender. This time, Gabbay himself wasn’t aspiring to be prime minister the day after the election. What’s more, for the first time in Israeli history, there were 18-year-olds going to vote for the first time Tuesday who have never known a Labor prime minister in their lifetime.

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The last time Israel was ruled by a Labor leader was under Ehud Barak (from 1999-2001), and Gabbay has made peace with the fact that this is not about to change.

Labor leader Avi Gabbay taking his mother, Sarah, to vote in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, April 9, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi
Benny Gantz celebrates with supporters and his wife Revital after casting his ballot, near a polling station in Rosh Ha'ayin, Israel April 9, 2019. REUTERS/Nir Elias     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“I wish Benny Gantz and Kahol Lavan luck today,” he said, and even seemed to mean it. “But not by moving Labor votes. We need to bring votes from the right wing to win. Kahol Lavan won’t win if it just takes Labor votes.”

Labor, which ran as Zionist Union with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah in 2015, won 24 seats in the last election. Now, the most optimistic polls have it on 11. Half of the votes have gone to Kahol Lavan, and Sarah Gabbay’s vote won’t be enough to replace that.

As things look in the polls, Kahol Lavan doesn’t seem to have attracted many right-wingers, either. The party’s leader, Gantz, shot up in the polls, bringing in 30 seats less than three months after entering politics. But most of those votes — at least those that were not cast in 2015 for Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, which is now part of Kahol Lavan — seem to have come at the expense of Labor.

Gantz himself did not look like a prime minister in the making on Election Day. As he was about to arrive for a midday visit to a strip mall in Rishon Letzion, only about 15 Kahol Lavan volunteers were waiting for him, armed only with a single flag, megaphone and drum. They started a lackluster chant, and things only livened up when someone brought along a boom box. And still Gantz wasn’t there.

Benny Gantz is surrounded by bodyguards and members of the media after casting his ballot at a polling station in Rosh Ha'ayin. April 9, 2019

Finally, his small convoy was spotted across a busy highway, 50 minutes late. “We had to hold him back because the media weren’t here yet,” said one campaign aide. “It should be the other way around — the media waiting for the candidate.” But Gantz isn’t a regular prime ministerial candidate and doesn’t show any of a typical politician’s eagerness.

As he finally began his walkabout at the mall, he shrank back into the small circle of his hired security guards, whispering to them as if he were back in uniform, commanding the Israel Defense Forces.

It’s not that Gantz lacks warmth or is in any way aloof. Whenever someone asks for a selfie, or if he meets a young child or senior citizen, he stoops down and spends a longer time speaking with them than most politicians. He is just not a natural fit for all this glad-handing. He is visibly uncomfortable in his suit under the midday sun, and it’s obvious he can’t see the point of the whole charade.

“This is a waste of time; elections are fought online anyway,” said one of Gantz’s aides. This was clearly what Gantz himself was thinking, too.

As it is, the hundreds of locals thronging the mall were here to have a good time on this election holiday. A few of them approached Gantz, but most seemed underwhelmed by the man fighting to being Israel’s next leader. The strain of an intense election campaign evident on his face (in a way it never is on that of Netanyahu, who relishes the mudslinging), Gantz seemed almost relieved the crowds were not pressing in as his little group made its way up the mall.

To replace Netanyahu, the opposition had to do one thing: Bring enough of those center-right, middle-class voters who voted for Likud or Kulanu in 2015 over to Kahol Lavan. The kind of voters hanging out with their kids at the mall. Gantz’s people don’t have the look of people who think they have succeeded.

“We’ve built the biggest party in Israel in just two months,” one of them boasted. But when asked if that means they will win, he admitted: “We need at least one of the governing coalition’s parties to fall beneath the electoral threshold.”

In other words, they’ve given up hoping to attract enough voters away from Netanyahu. They don’t believe they can break Bibi’s mesmerizing hold on his supporters. Instead, they hope he has made a strategic mistake with his recent “gevalt” campaign, cannibalizing the smaller right-wing parties for Likud’s benefit. Winning over Labor voters who want to see Netanyahu leave — more than anything — is much easier for the tired Gantz team, which seems to have run out of ideas.

They may yet win. But if they do, it will be because Netanyahu defeated Netanyahu.