These Israelis Are Keeping Gantz's Political Project Alive, but Just Barely

Despite facing electoral oblivion after Benny Gantz's decision to join up with Netanyahu's government, Kahol Lavan has mustered up a motley coalition of tactical and ideological voters that might keep it in the Knesset

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Once a contender for prime minister, Benny Gantz and his party are hovering over the electoral threshold
Once a contender for prime minister, Benny Gantz and his party are hovering over the electoral threshold Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Dvir Kariv, a former senior official at Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, plans on voting for the Kahol Lavan party in the upcoming March 23 Knesset election. When he made his voting intentions public in a Facebook post on Saturday, he was wary of the response he would receive. “I’m in shock over the support,” he said. “I was sure that I would take in on the chin.”

Kariv said this will be the first election in which he is voting for Kahol Lavan, the party headed by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, which has splintered since the last election a year ago and has seen its fortunes sink in the opinion polls.

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He decided to vote Kahol Lavan because polls show it around the minimum 3.25 percent of the vote necessary to obtain representation in the Knesset, handing the party four seats. Kariv said he has been concerned that the “coalition of the uncorrupt,” as he put it, would find itself losing out on those four seats.

Dvir Kariv believes the 'coalition of the uncorrupt' needs Benny GantzCredit: Daniel Ben Moshe

“It’s not that he’s suited to be a leader or prime minister,” Kariv admitted. “He is paying the price of his mistake in that his party has gone from more than 30 seats to the minimum threshold,” he said, referring to Gantz’s decision to join the outgoing coalition government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “but I think tactically.” The rotation never came about because the Knesset voted in December to dissolve itself amid a failure to pass the 2020 state budget.

Daniel Malka, 54, a self-identified man of the center-right from the moshav of Talmei Yaffe near Ashkelon, is with Benny Gantz “until the end.” The Kahol Lavan leader was his commander in the Judea and Samaria division of the paratroopers, and he believes that Gantz will be the surprise package of next week’s election: “People are sitting on the fence now...but in the end they will come home to Kahol Lavan.”

“I am sure that people will understand by next Tuesday that Benny Gantz may have committed political suicide, but like Samson, he presented Netanyahu naked,” he added.

Daniel Malka next to a poster of Benny GantzCredit: Ilan Assayag

While he understands why people were angry with the erstwhile contender to lead the country, he believes in Gantz's honesty. “Even if Gantz was wrong, he believed that this was the right path, and I was with him for every decision he made.”

The two men are not alone. Kahol Lavan, which had long been considered a dead political project, has managed in recent months to consolidate a base of voters that have consistently lifted its support in the polls over the 3.25 percent electoral threshold. Supporters of other center-left parties acknowledged that the party has demonstrated relative strength, but they say the support is fragile and that the party could find those voters abandoning Kahol Lavan on Election Day if they find better options.

One way or another, most of the polls since December find Gantz’s party is projected to receive between four and six Knesset seats, leaving the longstanding left-wing Meretz party fighting to remain over the electoral threshold.

Motley coalition

Kahol Lavan is currently attracting support from four main segments of the electorate.

The first is voters aged 50 and older who have voted for the party in prior elections and who define themselves as center-right voters. They support Gantz because they view him as someone who is honest and principled. They say they believe he was correct in sacrificing his political future by entering a Netanyahu-led coalition to put a halt to the prime minister’s efforts to sabotage the judiciary, as they see it.

Kahol Lavan is also attracting support from longtime Labor Party voters who are drawn to the current slate of Labor Party candidates headed by Merav Michaeli and view Gantz as a disciple of the late Labor Party leader, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Former Labor Party Knesset members Avraham Katz-Oz, Michael Bar-Zohar and Rafi Elul have been among those calling on former Labor stalwarts to vote Kahol Lavan.

Ofer Ish-Shalom, a software app developer from Petah Tikva, supported Gantz’s decision to join a Netanyahu-led coalition governmentCredit: Moti Milrod

Sarit Kalz, 29, of Kibbutz Magal, is a former Labor Party supporter who has shifted her vote to Kahol Lavan. “There’s an arrogance to Merav Michaeli and she has become more left-wing than Meretz,” Kalz said.

“I believe that, like all of us, Gantz has sobered up and won’t enter a Netanyahu government again. Beyond that, all those who have slandered Gantz, all those mice who have fled the ship – compared to them, Gantz is like a real captain who stays with the ship and protects it. It’s easy to run away and switch to other parties, but the smart thing to do is to protect what you have built and not be afraid, and I admire that in Gantz,” she added.

Ofer Ish-Shalom, a software app developer from Petah Tikva, actually supports Gantz’s decision to join a Netanyahu-led coalition government. “I wasn’t disappointed,” he said. “I thought about how I trust him. The alternative was worse if we had gone to another election. He had a good rotation agreement until the swindler betrayed him,” he said.

“It’s like the honest good man fighting a corrupt person,” Ish-Shalom said. “I’ve always liked Gantz. Even before he announced that he was running, I said from my standpoint, he represented hope. I voted for him every time. I trust him and prefer to give him my vote.”

There are also two groups of supporters of Kahol Lavan who are lending their support to the party for strategic reasons.

One is a group of center-left voters who think that this month’s election, the fourth in two years, will be followed in the near future by a fifth. They are voting for the party over concern that Netanyahu could fire all the Kahol Lavan ministers in the current caretaker government and then Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, in order to avoid his pending criminal trial on corruption charges.

Another group of strategic voters have another consideration. They are supporting Kahol Lavan due to concern that otherwise, the party will not pass the electoral threshold, meaning that the votes of tens of thousands of votes will go to waste, depriving the center-left bloc in the Knesset of four seats.

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