For both major parties, it isn’t about winning – it’s about staying in the ring

Likud and Blue and White have proven unexpectedly resilient in a race that will likely be won not by a knockout but by grueling attrition, and both are preparing for round 4

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Election posters put up by Blue and White show candidates Benny Gantz (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu on February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Election posters put up by Blue and White show candidates Benny Gantz (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu on February 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Three hundred and twenty-nine days separate election day on April 9, 2019 — that more innocent time, when Israelis didn’t yet know their laws could produce a year-long, three-election run of political deadlock — from election day on March 2, 2020.

Three-hundred and twenty-nine days of grueling political stalemate.

Over the past few weeks, and especially in the last days leading up to Monday’s vote, it became clear that that stalemate had transformed from a mathematical hiccup or inconvenience into the fundamental reality of this Israeli political moment. It has shaped the campaign and the psychology of the two leading candidates, and driven a new viciousness in their campaign strategies.

In April, a 35-seat Likud discovered its fledgling opponent could also draw 35 seats — and discovered too, on the last day of coalition talks and too late to do anything about it, that longtime ally Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beytenu party was no longer a reliable partner of the traditional right.

In September, Blue and White dropped two seats — but Likud dropped three. Blue and White’s decline was not caused by a decrease in voters — it actually won 25,000 more votes than in April — but rather by the complicated math of the electoral threshold.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the conference of the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, December 8, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Several religious-right factions united into the Yamina party, helping to prevent a repeat of the bloc’s loss of roughly three seats’ worth of votes when New Right failed to clear the 3.25 percent electoral threshold in September. Meanwhile, the Kulanu party, which won four seats in April, merged with Likud for the September race, but failed to bring its voters with it — they were more likely than not to vote Blue and White. But the boost of disenchanted Kulanu voters was offset for the centrist party by the shedding of tens of thousands of Russian-speaking supporters to Yisrael Beytenu, most of them drawn by Liberman’s new secularist stridency — the very stridency that forced the September race and helped Liberman’s faction swell from five seats in April to eight in September.

So while it’s true that some seats shifted around as some voters reconsidered their options, what is more surprising in the two elections of 2019 was the loyalty exhibited by the vast majority of voters — and the unexpected staying power of Blue and White.

Likud, in contrast, actually lost votes, dropping by some 35,000 votes, or roughly 3% of its April haul — despite the merger with Kulanu.

Those figures may seem like minutiae to anyone seeking to understand the broad strokes and overall significance of Monday’s vote. That’s just the thing: The campaigns, and the election as a whole, are now engaged in politics-by-minutiae, a bitter trench warfare that defines its goals in terms of minuscule gains, that grasps desperately for the slightest advance — not for victory, but to establish a narrative that keeps the possibility of victory open for yet another cycle.

What began on February 21, 2019, the day of Blue and White’s formation, as the toughest challenge in a decade to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued rule, has transformed over three election cycles into an unprecedented war of electoral attrition between two unexpectedly resilient behemoths.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz gives a press statement on January 1, 2020. (Flash90)

Consider the political achievement that Monday’s race represents for both Netanyahu and Gantz. Netanyahu lost almost no ground in the polls with the announcement of corruption indictments against him (a first for a sitting prime minister). Gantz has now shown he could unite and tame the egos and loyalties of three stupendously ambitious partners — Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — through a year of indecisive races, through exceedingly generous offers from Likud of positions and policy influence, and through no small number of squabbles within the activist ranks.

It is nothing short of astounding and (though the word has become overused in this election) unprecedented that both sides have been able to drive their flock and political machine to this point.

So where does that leave the two sides going into election day?

In a word: Both Netanyahu and Gantz are stuck.

Barring a shift in turnout or an unexpected run on the polls at just the right polling stations, Netanyahu still doesn’t have a majority coalition with only right-wing and Haredi parties, and Liberman is less likely to join his coalition today than before. The two men have a long and mostly unpleasant shared history, and Liberman knows that his current political growth comes from voters who prefer Blue and White to a Likud government.

A campaign poster for the Yisrael Beytenu party features the image of leader Avigdor Liberman and the caption “Liberman will keep Israel liberal,” along the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, January 21, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Gantz, too, is stuck. Blue and White may have entertained some vague hope of forming a minority government with a Jewish majority propped up from the outside by Haredi and/or Yisrael Beytenu and/or Joint List votes as needed. But that hope is receding from view. Such minority governments have existed in other democracies, but have never been a vehicle for stable governance in the Israeli political system. Put simply, such a government would be dependent on each of those divergent interests for nearly every policy or legislative vote, and so would be both hard-pressed to govern and easy to topple.

We are left with two resilient factions, each having proven its mettle against the other in two races and countless polls, and neither able to deliver a victory (again, assuming polls are correct).

That reality has shaped Monday’s race. It is no longer about all-out victory. Assuming neither faction suddenly implodes — as each assumed the other would over the past 11 months, with Likud referring to Blue and White as a “seasonal fashion” and Blue and White waiting with bated breath for post-indictment polls of Netanyahu’s supporters — the fight has shifted to defining the post-vote narrative. If victory no longer comes in a single ballot-box sweep, it must be sought in slow, grinding attrition of one’s opponents.

And so tiny movements suddenly matter.

Likud shed both seats and voters from April to September, including in places considered its longtime bastions like the “development towns” in the country’s north and south. A similar drop on Monday will transform Netanyahu from the invincible rainmaker of right-wing politics to an albatross slowly but steadily pulling it downward.

Demonstrators back Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his corruption hearings near the home of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, on October 5, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz has less to prove, but a more fragile political environment in which to prove it. He lost seats but gained voters in September. Yet unlike Netanyahu, just three or four people hold the key to his political survival. The Blue and White coalition has proven surprisingly resilient, but no one really knows how many election cycles it can endure without its constituent parties, especially Yesh Atid and its robust grassroots activist network, jumping ship. That’s especially true if Monday’s results rob Gantz of the argument that he is gaining ground, however slowly and painfully.

Political narratives are often self-fulfilling. Once the ball starts rolling either way, the narrative can be hard to challenge. Fear of failure can expedite failure.

All of that comes together to one overwhelming conclusion — each side is haunted by the prospect of losing: not losing an election, but losing a single seat. And that desperation for even the slightest gain, and the imperative to avoid the appearance of decline at all costs, has driven a coarsening campaign of unscrupulous manipulations and growing bitterness.

Gantz warned on Saturday night that Netanyahu and Likud “have no [ethical] boundaries” in what they’d be willing to do to win — and so voters should be on the lookout for attempts to disrupt the election on Monday.

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz at an election rally in Ramat Gan, February 25, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu has embraced a vote-suppression campaign that insists Gantz is mentally handicapped, can be extorted by Iranian intelligence due to sexually explicit content leaked from his cellphone (and, based on Likud’s account, apparently accessible only to the Likud campaign and Iranian intelligence), and is an incompetent manager and leader, despite winning repeated praise from Netanyahu himself when he served as IDF chief of staff until February 2015.

Election day is likely to get even uglier, much uglier. Every voter kept home, every voter driven to the polls by fear and anger (long known to be better motivators of human action than the more benign emotions) could be the one to turn the tide in this maddening equilibrium.

It should surprise no one, then, that both parties and both campaigns have already begun preparing for round four.

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