Parties Pushing Social Agenda Losing Their Appeal

Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu and Orli Levi-Abekasis's Gesher party lag far behind in an election that has marginalized social issues

Kulanu's Moshe Kahlon at the MUNI-EXPO, February 27, 2019.
Meged Gozani

The social justice banner, which drove voters to the polls in the last two elections, has lost its appeal in the current campaign. Parties focusing on a socioeconomic agenda have been pushed aside by the new trendy parties that are raising more varied banners: Benny Gantz's Kahol Lavan, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked's Hayamin Hehadash and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut.

The two parties focusing on social issues, Kulanu and Gesher, have been struggling in the last few weeks, teetering on the verge of not making it into the Knesset, according to the polls.

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“The problem isn’t with Kulanu or Gesher,” says a source from another party. “It’s the agenda that has changed. Both parties have dominant, charismatic leaders and proven accomplishments. But unlike the two previous election campaigns, today the social issues are on the margins of public discourse rather than its center.”

“Parties with only a social justice agenda aren’t exciting enough today to attract voters, in contrast to the sweeping energies swirling around the Netanyahu investigations, the security situation or future withdrawals as part of Trump’s plan, ” he says.

Benny Gantz’s entry into the race and the merger with Yesh Atid have turned the campaign into a battle between him and Netanyahu for the prime minister’s post. The fluctuating voters have been sucked into this battle. So parties that aren’t Likud or Kahol Lavan are having difficulty mustering votes for more than 10 Knesset seats. Kulanu’s main banner, “Affordable Housing,” “Saving for Every Child,” “Family Net” and even adding another assistant to every nursery school have become vague slogans.

In an effort to stay relevant Kahlon has replaced the slogan that got him into the Knesset, “Kulanu Kahlon" ("We are all Kahlon"), with “Kahlon Net,” which starred in the party’s preelection campaign. In January he launched a social campaign under the slogan “Kahlon is the only one who cares,” which was recently replaced in a bid to rebrand the party. Alongside Kahlon’s picture on the posters appeared a blurred portrait of the late Menachem Begin, with the slogan “The Sane Right.”

Unlike the previous election campaign, Kahlon recently declared that he would recommend Netanyahu for prime minister.

“Kulanu made a series of blunders in the current campaign,” a party source says. “The social issues are no longer the center of attention. We’ve come a long way from the 2011 social protest and many matters it brought up have changed for the better. The party didn’t catch on in time that it must diversify the topics it was promoting. As soon as three generals entered the campaign, the whole agenda changed,” he says.

The last polls indicate that even changing Kulanu’s definition from a centrist party to a rightist one hasn’t saved it. A Labor Party poll published in Haaretz at the beginning of January shows that 69 percent of Kulanu’s voters want to replace Netanyahu as prime minister. Kahlon has publicly supported Netanyahu in an attempt to enlist right-wing voters.

In the last Knesset term, Kulanu blocked rightist legislation like the so-called cultural loyalty proposal and the bill to bypass the High Court of Justice. But according to a recent Channel 13 news report, Kahlon told confidants he would no longer oppose changes to the justice system, in yet another move to appeal to right-wing voters.

“I’m not sure the public that supported us until now understands what we want from it,” a source in Kulanu says. “Kahlon is eyeing the 40 Knesset seats in the right-wing parties, but it’s not certain those people would vote for us anyway.”

A source in a center-left party says, “parties like Kulanu and Gesher have a right to exist only due to their ability to fit into any future government. Without holding key economic positions, these parties aren’t worth much. They’re not built for opposition. So both Kahlon and Orli Levi-Abekasis cannot rule out joining Likud or Kahol Lavan after the election. This makes it hard for them to take part effectively in either the campaign supporting Bibi or opposing him.”

Indeed, Kahlon and Levi-Abekasis have been reluctant to say how they would act if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is indicted. Kahlon made do with stating that “a prime minister under indictment, after a hearing, cannot function” while Levi-Abekasis said only in early March that “Gesher will respect the right to a hearing, but we won’t sit in a government whose prime minister has been criminally indicted.”

She also refrained from making a clear stand on other issues outside her party’s socioeconomic core. Gesher refused to answer many of Haaretz’s questions about whether it would support public transportation on weekends, civil marriage, LBGTQ rights, dividing Jerusalem, evacuating isolated settlements or the egalitarian prayer space agreement at the Western Wall. Some of the questions have recently been answered in a platform posted on the party’s site.