Two weeks before the March 2 election, the political parties are gearing up to try to prevent the same political stalemate the led to the dissolution of the Knesset twice last year. The polls aren’t promising in this regard; they continue to indicate that there hasn’t been any substantial change in the make-up of the two political blocs.
It appears that neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz thinks his bloc can win 61 seats; what they are aiming for is to try to capture two or three seats from the rival bloc, and to raise the voter turnout in their own camp. Both left and right fear that fatigued voters will simply stay home, which could cause a marked change in the balance of forces in the next Knesset.
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What follows is a glimpse at what the parties are planning for the run-up to the election.
The main scenario envisioned by Kahol Lavan is the formation of a minority government with Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor-Gesher-Meretz. The party hopes that the three parties together will win more votes than the right-wing parties. A Kahol Lavan source said that under these circumstances, at least one party from the right-wing bloc could be swayed to join a Gantz-led government, but he refused to reveal the basis for this assumption, since the leaders of the right-wing parties have once again declared their loyalty to Netanyahu, saying they would not join or support a government led by anyone else.
Gantz’s party will be focused on seeking support among wavering center-right voters. It is primarily targeting four groups – Russian speakers, Ethiopian immigrants, the Druze community and national-religious voters.
Gantz himself will be working on Yisrael Beiteinu voters by highlighting messages that are at the heart of Avigdor Lieberman’s campaign, including legislating the military draft law in its original form, advancing a secular agenda, and a promise that ultra-Orthodox parties will be only junior partners in a Kahol Lavan government, if at all. In recent days Gantz has intensified his attacks on the mainly-Arab Joint List in an effort to attract voters. “I won’t sit [in a government] with the Joint List and I don’t need their support,” Gantz said Saturday night.
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After failing to end up the largest party in two straight elections, Likud is also working to sway voters from particularly organized groups like Ethiopian immigrants, farmers, taxi drivers and small-business owners. On Sunday it announced it had reached an agreement with the Tzomet party, for which 15,000 farmers voted in September, so that it would drop out of the race. On a larger scale, it is using positive messages to encourage right-wingers to vote, while continuing to attack Kahol Lavan on the issue of support from the Joint List.
Likud is also zeroing in on young people who, from a demographic perspective, should lean rightward but are having trouble keeping up with the cost of living, and who blame Netanyahu for not doing enough to lower prices, particularly housing prices. That’s why last week the premier announced that Nir Barkat would be his next finance minister, and on Sunday released an economic plan which is nothing more than a repeat of old promises to release land for building and cut bureaucracy. Above all, Likud is trying to raise voter turnout among its base, which is why it will continue to hold daily election rallies and meetings, even though some in the party decry this as a waste of effort and resources.
The party is focused on getting more seats in the next Knesset, although political observers are skeptical about its ability to win 15 or 16 seats, which is their declared goal. It now has 13 seats.
“We are dealing with a campaign of delegitimization, but what is clear is that the Arab public isn’t buying it,” a party activist said. “We are getting a lot of data from the field that people are interested in increasing their representation out of a belief that greater representation will force everyone to relate to the Joint List differently.”
Joint List members admitted that in recent days they’ve been criticized for being dragged into a corner over whether or not they would recommend Gantz for prime minister, with Lieberman or without him. “As if this is all we should be dealing with, and it’s not true,” said a party MK. “We are not going to sleep and waking up with Gantz on our minds.”
In its campaign, Shas continues to highlight messages related to tradition and Judaism. On Saturday night it released a video showing that instead of Shabbat quiet, the streets would be filled with noisy buses, roadwork and street music without Shas. “What kind of Shabbat do you want for your children?” the announcer asks.
Shas is also focused on getting its voters to the polls. According to a party analysis, some 300,000 right-wing voters didn’t vote in the September election. Although Shas did well in the last election, winning nine seats, it knows that the size of the party is less important than the size of the bloc. That’s why Shas gave Likud access to its computer system, in an effort to join forces and reach potential voters.
The party is not happy with the stalemate predicted by the polls. “We will continue to focus on the tradition and Haredi communities, as well as anyone to whom a Jewish state is important,” a party source said.
Yisrael Beiteinu is trying to maintain its achievements of last September, when it gained 140,000 new voters compared to the April election. It is particularly concerned by surveys showing that a clear majority of voters don’t want a fourth round of elections and is thus reiterating the message that party leader Lieberman isn’t an obstacle to forming a government, but actually has the solution.
The assumption is that those 140,000 voters harbor clear sentiments against the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim). That’s why the party has been conducting a campaign linking the Haredim with money that borders on anti-Semitic. While not worried about its base of Russian immigrants, it is aware that it could lose some of this community’s younger voters.
United Torah Judaism
Given the aggressive campaign by Lieberman against the Haredi community, which Kahol Lavan’s Yair Lapid periodically joins, the party representing the Ashkenazi Haredim feels that the battle this time is more significant than before. “It’s not just a question of religion; we feel for the first time like they are threatening the Haredi public’s ability to exist as a community,” a UTJ source said.
The party, whose base of supporters is considered stable, opened up its headquarters throughout the country on Sunday. The party continues to use its own media channels, primarily the various daily papers that go to almost every Haredi household, while leading rabbis are expected to conduct visits and special rallies. “We are very organized in terms of Election Day itself; our system is already coordinated in terms of rides [to the polling stations], activists, digital and whatever is needed,” said the source. “It worked beautifully the first two times, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work the third time.”
The party was pleased with the most recent polls showing it winning seven to eight seats, but activists know the test will come 72 hours before the election, when Netanyahu is most likely to make his move toward pressuring Yamina voters to vote Likud. The party will thus seek to emphasize that only a strong Yamina will make it possible to impose Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank.
The understanding in Yamina is that Netanyahu and Gantz, with backing from the White House, are expected to form a unity government. Yamina’s goal is thus to be party of such a government, assuming Netanyahu leads it, in the event that a right-wing government cannot be formed. The party will stress that a unity government could bring about a Palestinian state and forget about applying sovereignty.
The combined slate is now trying to realize its recent poll results that predict it will win nine seats, which is less than the 11 that Labor-Gesher and Meretz now have together.
In addition to trying to deter Kahol Lavan from conducting a campaign at their slate’s expense, Labor-Gesher-Meretz is promoting a civic-social agenda to excite their supporters and bring back left-wing voters who deserted to Kahol Lavan. It has announced that if it joins the next government, it will demand that Nitzan Horowitz be named education minister, and Orli Levi-Abekassis health minister. Peretz will want a senior economic portfolio and a role in conducting diplomatic talks with the Palestinians.
Jack Khoury, Aaaron Rabinowitz, and Josh Breiner contributed to this report.