Revital Mansour has been a Likud voter her entire adult life. For the past decade, the 41-year-old house cleaner from Herzliya has given her vote to Benjamin Netanyahu — but says that this year she may not. She is tired of hearing about his scandals, court cases and indictments.
“I’m definitely right-wing, I want to vote for Likud. But I’m feeling fed up with Bibi. Maybe I’ll vote for someone else,” she says, referring to the prime minister by his nickname.
But if she does vote for another party, it won’t be the newly formed Kahol Lavan. Despite having three generals toward the top of its slate, Mansour says she doesn’t trust the party led by ex-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz to keep the country safe.
One option she is considering is Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash, which, poll after poll, is teetering on the edge of the electoral threshold and may not make it into the Knesset — meaning that a vote for Bennett could end up being a wasted vote.
And so she wavers. When will she make up her mind? “Probably not until I’m in the polling station,” she says. “It’s going to be at the last minute.”
Mansour is part of what seems like Israel’s largest voting bloc: undecided voters. Indecisiveness is not considered a common characteristic among Israelis — they can usually be relied upon to express a strong opinion or preference on almost any given topic. But with the election just days away, ask Israelis who they plan to vote for on April 9 and the answer is frequently: “I don’t know yet.”
This isn’t an isolated occurrence but a manifestation of a years-long national trend, according to Hebrew University political scientist Prof. Reuven Hazan.
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“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of undecided voters over the course of the last few elections,” he tells Haaretz. “There seems to be a growing percentage of Israeli voters who are not only looking for something new but are making up their minds at the last minute” — and that applies across the political spectrum.
This phenomenon has made the polls more unreliable than ever, notes Hazan, which in turn adds to voter uncertainty. “We’ve experienced a big surprise, one way or another, in every election over the past 15 years,” he says, referring to the last four Knesset elections.
Conversations with a cross section of Israeli voters reveal that, generally, the source of their indecision doesn’t stem from their position on the issues or the direction in which they want the country to go — on this they feel fairly certain. However, voters from the right, left and center all seem confounded as to how to express their political will at the ballot box.
Their doubts and debates are numerous: They worry that voting for the small party that hews closest to their views may hurt the larger cause of either protecting or overturning the reign of Netanyahu by taking away a seat from one of the two big contenders — Likud and Kahol Lavan. They worry that if they don’t vote for the small party they really believe in, it may fail to clear the 3.25 percent electoral threshold and disappear from the Knesset forever. They ask themselves if, after the election ends and the government coalition-building process begins, the party they choose might abandon their principles in order to grab a plum ministry.
Meanwhile, most say they are not only confused but disgusted by the lack of substantive debate they’ve heard in the short, frantic campaign season. The tidal wave of finger pointing, smears and personal attacks being dug up and circulated by rival candidates is overwhelming from all directions — television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the workplace, and then there’s the barrage of campaign text messages.
“I think everybody has this fear that they don’t want to waste their vote on a party that won’t get into the Knesset. We also want to make sure we’re not going contribute to coalition-building that is going to turn our stomach,” says undecided voter Zahava Bogner, 53, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.
“I am so appalled by the candidates and the platforms and the bickering and the rhetoric,” she says. “The parties on the center-right I would vote for have made alliances with people who I feel are repugnant — and I can’t say that word strongly enough.”
Bogner says the political alignment between the more moderate right with Kahanist members of Otzma Yehudit and religious extremists in ultra-Orthodox parties have pushed her to rule out some of the parties she might have voted for.
And while she sees that Kahol Lavan’s leadership includes those who “hold views that are reasonable and consistent with mine,” she still fears that Gantz would be willing to consider a territorial compromise with the Palestinians.
“I don’t want to vote for anyone who is going to give Shas a place at the table,” she says, referring to the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party. “But I also won’t vote for anyone who I worry won’t let me make my home in Gush Etzion,” she adds, referring to the settlement bloc near Jerusalem where she lives.
Just a week before Election Day, Bogner doesn’t know which parties are even on her short list, or how she will ultimately decide. “I really have no idea,” she says. “I’m going to sit down and make a list of all of the parties, cross out those who make me feel sick, and see which among those that are left have the fewest number of people who make me want to cry.”
Such indecisiveness is understandable, says pollster and strategist Dahlia Scheindlin. She notes the larger choice of parties than ever before (over 40), with many of them new and untested.
“The Israeli party landscape keeps evolving so radically and so quickly,” she says. “There’s an accelerated pace of change that’s just hard to keep up with. From election to election, more and more parties are being created, establishing themselves, collapsing, breaking up and merging. Voters must rethink everything for each new election — realign and decide each time what party they feel connected to, and in many cases determine if they will vote for new parties that until very recently didn’t even exist.”
Center-right voter Emanuel Miller, a 31-year-old from Jerusalem, says he is primarily debating between two new parties: Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher and Kahol Lavan.
Like Mansour, Miller is nostalgic for the days when Likud felt like the obvious choice. But in recent years, he says, he has continually been “let down” by Netanyahu’s “divisive leadership style” and anti-Arab dog whistles. Miller was alienated, he says, by the prime minister’s false claim in the 2015 election that Arabs were being bused to polling stations “in their droves” by left-wing NGOs.
Miller plans to make his choice based on the final set of opinion polls before Election Day. His preference is to support Levi-Abekasis.
“If Gesher clears the voting threshold in the final polls, it’ll get my vote,” he says (the party has been just short of passing the threshold in recent polls). “Its focus on social issues, including improving the health system and greater representation of women in politics, are things that much of the population want to see. … And since Likud is currently primed to win the election [by being able to assemble a ruling coalition in excess of 60 lawmakers], it would make sense to try to strengthen a moderate potential coalition partner and have a government ministry handed to someone responsible, rather than another grandstanding, divisive loudmouth.”
If Levi-Abekasis’ chances of entering the Knesset look grim, Miller thinks he will give his vote to Kahol Lavan.
A vote for Gantz, Miller explains, “won’t be so much a vote for that party as it is an anti-Netanyahu vote. I don’t have much confidence in Gantz and certainly don’t think [Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair] Lapid has proven himself in the Knesset. But I feel Israeli politics urgently needs a reboot.”
There is a parallel debate occurring on the left side of the political map. Voters Haaretz interviewed are torn between voting for parties whose positions mirror their beliefs and whom they have previously backed — like Meretz or the Labor Party — or voting for Kahol Lavan, thus giving the party a better shot at either unseating Netanyahu or moderating the composition of his ruling coalition.
Gabriel Avner, a 34-year-old security consultant and writer from Hod Hasharon, is among many on the center-left who say they are torn between Labor and Gantz’s party. He says that because the debates between the parties have been so superficial, and the rhetoric so “dirty” and “toxic,” the more attention he pays to the campaign the more difficult he finds it to make his decision.
Avner has previously voted for Labor, but says he “cannot stand” its current leader, Avi Gabbay. Furthermore, he feels that under Gabbay’s leadership, the party is both “directionless” and unwilling to clearly advocate for a two-state solution or discuss articulate positions on security and diplomacy — so much so that he may “punish” the party by choosing Kahol Lavan.
“I generally don’t vote for small parties, they make it much harder to build a coalition,” says Avner. “Labor was always a big player; not so much anymore.”
He qualifies his criticism by noting that “much of the Labor leadership is fantastic on social issues. But I am a strong believer in the idea that Israelis take to the streets to protest about [the price of] cottage cheese, but they vote on security. You can’t make a real mark on the electorate without it.”
Avner admits he felt better about supporting Gantz last month, before “watching him kind of flounder in the Israeli media electioneering cesspool.” But the strongest reason for his hesitation is Kahol Lavan’s rotation agreement, in which Gantz would hand the prime ministership to his second-in-command after two and a half years.
“In order to cast a ballot for Kahol Lavan, I will have to feel if I can in good conscience vote for Lapid — and for me Lapid is such an empty vessel,” says Avner. “So I need to ask myself if two years of Gantz would be worth two years of Lapid.”
Further afield, there are some on the left, like academic Ori Weisberg, who are considering whether to cross an ideological line and vote for a non-Zionist party. The two parties he is considering, Meretz and Hadash-Ta’al, are both in danger of falling under the electoral threshold and not making it into the Knesset, so he must also decide whether he wants to potentially contribute to their demise. (Meretz no longer identified as Zionist in 2015, while Hadash-Ta’al is a predominantly Arab alliance.)
Officially, Weisberg is a member of Meretz: He signed up to vote in the party’s first-ever primary this February. He still believes that the party contains effective politicians who champion causes like LGBT rights and protecting asylum seekers. But he is unhappy with its lack of “a clear and detailed platform,” and his sense that the party has no place for observant Jews like him, “who practice Judaism but support the separation of religion and state.”
He continues: “Meretz, like Shas, is really a tribal party. They have a history of alienating the traditionally observant and ... I am frustrated with the lack of real commitment to reaching beyond their base of secular, Greater Tel Avivians,” he says, referring to the central Israel area that is largely liberal and left-leaning.
The far-left (Jewish-Arab) Hadash was part of the Joint List in 2015, meaning it ran alongside two Islamic parties in a four-party alliance. Weisberg says he opposes Islamic parties as much as he does Orthodox Jewish ones, since he doesn’t believe in mixing religion and politics. However, now that Hadash is partnered only with Ahmad Tibi’s Ta’al, Weisberg is seriously contemplating deserting Meretz to vote for them — while acknowledging that both choices are flawed.
“Both are committed to advancing equal civil rights and access to resources among Israel’s different communities,” says Weisberg. “Both want to end the occupation, though neither really has a plan beyond reciting dogmatic commitments to two states. I’d rather not reward Meretz for its ongoing political malpractice. On the other hand, I get that culturally Hadash is wedded to its Stalinist aesthetics but it hasn’t been a communist party for a long time.”
When it comes to April 9, Weisberg’s situation is the same as many others: “I really don’t know what I will do when I walk into that polling station.”