Analysis

Right-winger’s First Success in Election Polls Endangers Gantz and Netanyahu Alike

Moshe Feiglin’s party is now above the electoral threshold, but even Bibi might be cool to a politician who wants to rebuild the Temple and privatize hospitals

Moshe Feiglin speaking at a campaign stop in Be'er Sheva, March 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The bottom line from this week’s polls is that the further along we are, the less we know. This wasn’t too bad a week for Benny Gantz, whose centrist Kahol Lavan alliance maintained its 35 to 38 seats in the surveys. Half the polls even gave his group enough seats to form a bloc with other parties against the prime minister.

Benjamin Netanyahu's week in the polls wasn’t bad either; despite the draft indictment for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, Likud leveled off at 30 to 31 seats. Some of the polls even predicted that Likud would be able to form a bloc with other parties against its rivals.

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The feeling is that the marginal parties will have a major impact on who the next prime minister is. Whether a given party passes the 3.25 percent electoral threshold will make a difference in which side can block the other’s moves in the next Knesset.

This week, a few Likud seats went to the other bloc because of the draft indictment, but Likud continued to take votes from smaller right-wing parties. Naftali Bennett’s Hayamin Hehadash, the far-right Union of Right-Wing Parties, ultra-Orthodox party Shas and center-right Kulanu all stand at five seats in a poll by Kan 11 public television. Every seat they lose helps Likud close the gap with Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, a gap that could, for example, make Kahlon think twice about his loyalty to the right-wing bloc.

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But if the smaller parties lose too many seats, they might not make it into the Knesset, putting the right-wing bloc at risk. That’s why most of Netanyahu’s campaign this week was directed against Gantz; seats Kahol Lavan is gaining from former Likudniks are the only ones Netanyahu can siphon off without risk. The same is true for Kahol Lavan’s campaign; it wants to promise enough seats to form a bloc against the right wing, but it prefers to gain those seats from the right and not put the left-wing Meretz party at risk.

Two weeks have passed since Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael joined forces with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to form Kahol Lavan. Like others, I thought this alliance, certainly if it included a rotation of the premiership, would hurt both leaders. After all, surveys saw Gantz as a more suitable as prime minister; few respondents saw Lapid as premier material. There were also fears about an image of two hesitant leaders rather than one confident one.

Moshe Feiglin speaking at a campaign stop in Be'er Sheva, March 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

It’s hard to say that Kahol Lavan’s campaign chiefs didn’t sense this themselves. Since the alliance formed they’ve been keeping the rotation at as low a profile as possible. Lapid talks little about it, preferring to stress Gantz’s leadership. It seems they too understand that a rotation could damage them.

Well, this strategy working. Over the past two weeks, Gantz and Lapid have been neck and neck with Netanyahu on suitability as prime minister, with Netanyahu slightly ahead by between 1 and 6 points – between 40 and 46 percent at most according to a Channel 13 News poll.

In this metric, Gantz hasn’t suffered since the union with Lapid. Either Israelis aren’t deterred by the idea of Lapid as prime minister, as they were before, or maybe people are impressed by the way the two have set their egos aside and are working together. Or maybe they simply don’t believe a rotation will happen.

Earlier this week I noted that Avigdor Lieberman and Orli Levi-Abekassis, who once were in the Knesset together in Yisrael Beiteinu, fell short of the electoral threshold in the polls for the first time. Precedent shows that if a party in that situation doesn’t rally quickly, even loyal voters will abandon it. That’s what happened this week. Last week Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and Levi-Abekakis’ Gesher were at 3 percent, and now less.

But Moshe Feiglin’s far-right Zehut party has shown that the power of momentum is also true from the other direction. Feiglin was just waiting for the first major poll to put him over the top when Kan gave him four seats.

Another precedent: It’s a promising sign when a party suddenly tops the threshold in the polls. After all, some respondents haven’t yet opted for Zehut, fearing that their vote would be wasted. But once such voters see a poll putting the party in the Knesset, it might even reach seven or eight seats.

Ask the Pensioners’ Party, which nobody gave a second thought to during most of the 2006 campaign. At the 11th hour the polls gave it two to three seats, and it eventually won seven seats.

Of course, this time around, the Kan poll might have been a fluke, and Feiglin could quickly fall back below the threshold. What’s more, the moment he becomes a serious contender, he will also be the target of serious criticism from political rivals who previously didn’t want to waste their ammunition on him.

From the right, videos will emerge of candidates on his roster who allegedly oppose circumcision, and the left will remind enthusiasts that this is a man who wanted to move the government ministries to the Old City of Jerusalem, rebuild the Temple and privatize hospitals. And independent liberals will be reminded that this is a person who considers himself a “proud homophobe.”

The two candidates for prime minster will follow the Feiglin trend with concern; after all, Feiglin’s entry significantly weakens Gantz’s chances to form a bloc against the right wing.

Still, it’s not certain that Netanyahu wants the stepson of the right-wing bloc, who now owes nothing to anyone, as part of the team he needs to form a government. If Feiglin’s party makes the Knesset, Gantz apparently won’t have 61 MKs to recommend that he form a government, and Netanyahu will have that number only if Feiglin’s supporters are on board.