AnalysisGantz may be fading but Joint List is polling at 14-15 seats

Netanyahu saw Trump plan as asset, but now polls show surge of angry Arab voters

A euphoric PM thought the US deal would help ensure election victory. But a clause suggesting Arab towns could be placed in a future Palestine has galvanized some key opponents

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015, warning that Arab voters were coming out in droves. (screen capture: YouTube)
Benjamin Netanyahu in an Election Day message, March 17, 2015, warning that Arab voters were coming out in droves. (screen capture: YouTube)

In its final pre-election poll on Friday night, Israel’s Channel 2 predicted 35 seats for Likud, maintaining a gradual rise in recent days for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, and up from the 32 seats Likud won in the September elections. The poll gave the rival Blue and White party 33 seats, down from 35 seats in the same survey a month ago, and the same number as it won in September.

Assessing the poll, the station’s political analyst Amit Segal reflected the widespread assessment that momentum ahead of Monday’s elections is with Netanyahu, and that Blue and White’s Benny Gantz has been placed emphatically on the defensive in the campaign’s final weeks.

In its opening survey of the current campaign, back in December, Segal recalled, the Gantz-headed semi-alliance of centrist, left and Arab parties was polling at 58 seats, to the Netanyahu-led right-Orthodox bloc’s 54. (It’s a “semi-alliance” because while the largely Arab Joint List bitterly opposes Netanyahu, it is not really in Gantz’s corner either.) In Friday’s poll, by contrast, the Gantz-led bloc had slipped to 56 seats, and Netanyahu’s camp was up to 58, just three seats away from a Knesset majority.

However troubling the vicious personal attacks the Likud has launched at Gantz — asserting, among other claims, that the former chief of staff is suffering from dementia, cannot express himself coherently, lacks the courage to confront Iran, is vulnerable to extortion by Iran because his mobile phone has been hacked and contains embarrassing material, and is regarded as a danger to Israel even by one of his own campaign advisers — it is those assaults that have dominated the agenda in the run-up to March 2.

Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz at a press conference at Kfar Maccabiah on February 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Gantz is manifestly sane and reasonably coherent, and was courageous, invulnerable and competent enough to serve as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces until 2015 — appointed to the post and retained for an additional year with Netanyahu’s personal approval, at the culmination of a glittering almost four-decade military career. He was also evidently dependable enough for Netanyahu, Gantz says, to have asked him to serve as his defense minister 18 months ago, and for Netanyahu to have openly sought to share the prime ministership with him on a rotational basis after the last elections.

Since those deadlocked elections in September, Netanyahu has progressed from facing imminent charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, to being indicted in the three graft cases against him, with his trial set to open on March 17. And he has not definitively ruled out again seeking Knesset immunity from prosecution, and/or instituting far-reaching legislation to try to avoid going on trial.

Yet Netanyahu, peerless political operator that he is, has managed to push the issue of his own alleged criminality somewhat to the margins of the campaign by seizing upon the interestingly timed opening of a police investigation into alleged impropriety surrounding a bankrupt tech company, Fifth Dimension, that Gantz used to chair. Gantz alleges that a “political aroma” surrounds the opening of this probe, just days before the election, in a state prosecution hierarchy now functioning under the watchful eye of acting Justice Minister Amir Ohana, a solid Netanyahu loyalist.

Boys stand inside a kindergarten’s playground that was hit by a missile fired from Gaza in the city of Sderot, Israel, Feb. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Since September, too, Netanyahu has continued to look helpless in the face of ongoing intermittent rocket attacks on southern Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The prime minister has been castigated from left and right, and by the battered local residents, for failing to tackle the Gaza dangers; Gantz’s Blue and White colleague Gabi Ashkenazi, another former IDF chief, is by far the electorate’s most favored choice for defense minister. And yet the relentless Gaza flare-ups have not dented Likud’s polling numbers.

Indeed, as voting day approaches, Netanyahu has regained his wide advantage over Gantz as Israel’s preferred prime minister. At times in recent months, the two men were neck and neck; on Friday, Channel 12 had Netanyahu favored over Gantz by 44-32%, while a Channel 13 poll had Netanyahu ahead 45-35%.

Streaming to the polls

There is, however, one major blot on this relatively encouraging political landscape for the prime minister. More than he worries about Benny Gantz on polling day, he fears the Israeli Arab electorate.

On election day in 2015, Netanyahu used his formidable social media operation to disseminate the assertion that Arab voters were “coming out in droves” to the polls — a dubious claim that day, but one intended to panic his own supporters into voting in the highest possible numbers.

Leader of the Joint list Ayman Odeh (R) and party member Ahmad Tibi arrive for a meeting with party members at the Knesset on September 22, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In April 2019, activists hired by his Likud sought to intimidate Arab voters by deploying with cameras at polling stations in Arab areas; the Arab turnout in April was a low 50%.

In September, however, the Israeli Arab community evidently decided not to be deterred and, apparently encouraged by the reunification of the Joint List of four largely Arab factions, its turnout rose dramatically, to 60%, and the Joint List won 13 seats — up from 10 in April.

Ahead of Monday’s elections, the Channel 12 survey gave the Joint List a record 14 seats, and Channel 13 predicted 15 seats, with pollsters assessing that Arab turnout could reach some 65% — not far below the national average. (Overall turnout in April was 68.5%, and in September, 69.7%.)

Ayman Odeh, Ahmad Tibi and other veteran Joint List MKs have said that, along with long-time antipathy to Netanyahu, the Arab sector — almost a quarter of the Israeli population — is particularly mobilized to vote this time because of opposition to US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.

US President Donald Trump, left, listens as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 28, 2020, to announce the Trump administration’s much-anticipated plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The Palestinian Authority wants nothing to do with the US administration, and has bitterly rejected the proposal, which conditionally offers the Palestinians eventual restricted sovereignty and a small foothold in Jerusalem, while granting Israel the right to annex some 30% of the West Bank including all the settlements. The Joint List also firmly opposes the Trump plan, but it is one clause in that US proposal that particularly galls the Israeli Arab community, its MKs say.

The plan includes a reference to possible land swaps that would see Israeli Arab towns in the so-called “triangle” southeast of Haifa handed over to Palestinian control. It “contemplates the possibility, subject to agreement of the parties that the borders of Israel will be redrawn such that the Triangle Communities become part of the State of Palestine.”

On the day the Trump plan was released, Joint List leader Odeh called the clause “the inevitable end-point of Trump and Bibi’s racist agenda, a green light to revoke the citizenship of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab citizens who live in northern Israel.”

While Likud has strengthened in the polls over recent weeks, its gains have been somewhat offset by the rise of the Joint List, culminating in Friday’s 14-15 seat predictions.

Netanyahu has championed the Trump plan as unprecedentedly good for Israel, and formulated solely because of the extraordinary relationship he has managed to build with Trump and the US administration.

Euphoric over its content, he plainly anticipated that it would help him win Monday’s elections. It would be a momentous irony if that plan — and especially the provision for redrawing the border; a provision that a worried Netanyahu last week said he rejects — were to wind up costing him a Knesset majority, again.

Israel’s opinion polls are notoriously unreliable. Small shifts in voter preferences and turnout can remake the sensitive political map. But Friday’s final surveys suggested that Netanyahu, having hammered away at Gantz, may find himself dented by a genuine case on Monday of what he alleged in 2015: Israel’s Arab voters coming out in droves to the polls, infuriated by the Trump peace plan.

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