The election campaign finally truly kicked off this week with an increase in intensity, both in terms of campaigning and in media coverage. After a lengthy marathon, we have now entered the all-important sprint to the finish line.
The impact of this change of tempo on the numbers so far, however, is negligible. In seven polls over the past week, the Benjamin Netanyahu-led bloc scored 60 seats five times, causing its average to remain virtually unchanged at 60.2 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Yet while the numbers haven’t changed much, there is (finally!?) a lot going on in the campaign, and so, in this week’s column, we will scan the political map, analyzing the closing strategies of various parties, and highlighting the key clashes to look for over the next nine days.
The situation on the right is fairly straightforward, with four established parties, all well clear of the 3.25 percent threshold.
For the two Haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – the closing strategy, as ever, will be about voter mobilization, alongside an attempt to win back some of the younger voters who may have migrated to Religious Zionism.
As we noted last week, the Haredi parties are currently polling at a combined 15 seats – compared to 16 in the past four cycles – so they will hope to win at least one more seat in the final stretch.
What is interesting on the right is the developing battle between Likud and Religious Zionism – or more accurately, between Netanyahu and Itamar Ben Gvir, the Otzma Yehudit leader who is No. 2, behind Bezalel Smotrich, on the joint Religious Zionism slate.
This tension was seen at a post-Sukkot event in Kfar Chabad on Monday night, where Netanyahu waited awkwardly off camera for Ben Gvir to leave the stage, so as to avoid being photographed with him so close to the election and infuriating the latter.
This seemingly trivial matter is symbolic of a greater divergence of interests between the two men. From Netanyahu’s perspective, despite having used so much political capital to ensure the existence of the Religious Zionism party in its current composition, he now sees its growth – from six seats in the outgoing Knesset, and nine at the beginning of the campaign, to 13.3 today – as a threat.
For Ben Gvir and his populist insurgency, this campaign represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to catapult himself to the top tier of Israeli politics. As other right-wing parties have found (such as Shas, which won 17 seats in 1999; Yisrael Beytenu, which won 15 in 2009, and Jewish Home, which won 12 seats in 2013), the sharp rise is usually followed by a pretty steep decline, so there is a strong temptation to strike while the iron is hot.
In practice, this means that Ben Gvir is seeking to maximize his own party’s vote share, rather than to grow the bloc as a whole. This week, Religious Zionism has talked of canceling Netanyahu’s trial and of seeking senior ministerial portfolios, including notably the Defense Ministry; messages that it hopes will help to continue to grow its support. Smotrich also unveiled a full-fledged proposal to overhaul the judicial system.
This presents a problem for Netanyahu. Not only might Religious Zionism’s drive for maximal support cause leakage from the right flank of Likud, but more significantly, it could well cause damage to the bloc by pushing away the critical soft right voters he is seeking to woo. Importantly, its leaders’ statements also serve as the dream mobilization tool for the anti-Netanyahu bloc. Indeed, few things can mobilize anti-Netanyahu voters more than the prospect of canceling his trial, or of a far-right MK like Ben Gvir, who was deemed too extreme to even be allowed to serve in the army, occupying the critical Defense Ministry portfolio.
Likud has therefore sought to push back on these messages, looking to stick with its mamlachti (statesmanlike) approach aimed at the soft right. In this, it is hoping to replicate its 2013 strategy in which it won back a number of seats from the Jewish Home party in the final days, when fears of the extreme views of some Jewish Home candidates came to light, and Likud was seen as the more moderate, safer bet.
In the end though, this ultimately is an internal clash which probably will not affect the overall outcome. As the graph below shows, Likud and Religious Zionism combined have polled extremely steadily throughout this campaign, at between 44 and 45 seats. Religious Zionism’s growth has had almost no impact on the overall picture, and the same would likely be true were it to be reversed in the next nine days.
The non-Netanyahu Bloc
Things on the other side of the map are more interesting and, with four parties polling close to the threshold, likely more significant.
This week, the Yesh Atid campaign took an interesting turn in opening up a new front by campaigning on the issue of gender. While women in Israel are generally slightly to the left of men, gender-based campaigns are rare.
The issue chosen by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the Yesh Atid leader, was that of abortion, releasing a campaign ad that combined clips of the historic US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade with a quote from Religious Zionism leader Smotrich describing abortion as “murder,” as well as highlighting Netanyahu’s commitment that Smotrich and Ben Gvir will be partners in his government. The spot closes with the claim that the next Netanyahu government will do away with abortion, describing such a government as “dangerous for women.”
Such a new angle is interesting, and is no doubt based on in-depth polling. In virtually every poll we have ever done, women have stated themselves to be less certain of their final vote than men, so there is certainly an effort to play on this in the final days.
The problem for Lapid is that these female voters have to come from somewhere, and in this case, are likely to currently be voting for Meretz and Labor. As such, this represents a continuation of his efforts to take votes from the two smaller left-of-center parties, based on the argument that both those parties will “easily pass the threshold” and that the bloc needs a large party capable of sustaining a government and bringing stability.
In contrast, Meretz and Labor claim that it makes little difference if Lapid wins 20 or 24 seats, but it is absolutely critical that both pass the threshold. Ultimately, Lapid’s gamble is that the threat of Meretz or Labor not passing the threshold is so “baked in” that enough voters will vote to “save” them in the end whatever he does.
He may well be right, but it is certainly a risky game.
The next biggest party in the bloc, Benny Gantz’s National Unity, has seen its numbers slide in recent weeks from a high of 13.5 seats down to 11.7 in our average. The strategic challenge for National Unity is that its entire campaign was built on the perception of electability, and the claim that Gantz’s relationships with Haredi parties will give him a better shot at forming a government than Lapid. The problem with an electability-based argument, however, is that it is eroded by falling poll numbers, and can easily enter a death spiral when its central tenet seems implausible.
It is no surprise, therefore, that this week National Unity began a new phase of its campaign focused on security. New ads claim that with the multitude of threats Israel faces, it needs a security figure as prime minister. There is nothing novel about this argument, but until recently, it has not been a significant part of Gantz’s campaign. But with the threat of Ben Gvir or Smotrich as minister of defense, and a host of security challenges on the horizon, Gantz is gambling that a party with two former IDF chiefs of staff in its top three positions (Gantz himself and Gadi Eisenkot) can make hay on the security issue – which is so important for the Israeli voter.
While the line is officially still that Gantz is campaigning to be prime minister, it looks very much like a campaign built around the (for-now subliminal) choice of Gantz or Ben Gvir as minister of defense. We would not be surprised to see the choice be framed in a more overt way over the next week.
Ultimately, the prospects for National Unity in the latter phase of the campaign do not look great. Meretz and Labor will hope to win over tactical voters looking to save them again (as they did in 2021) from slipping below the 3.25 Knesset threshold, while Lapid’s message of a strong Yesh Atid could also prove persuasive. Without a similarly strong closing rationale, Gantz’s party could well be the one to lose ground.
At this stage it is worth a word about Avigdor Liberman and Yisrael Beteynu. After some pretty indifferent early polling and long-term demographic trends working against him, we asked in one of our earlier columns whether this campaign would be the toughest yet for Liberman. Instead, his party has sailed through the campaign, steadily growing its numbers to a solid six seats, and even reaching seven in polls three times in the past week – for the first time in this campaign. Though there is still time for final twists, it seems you write off Liberman at your peril.
Finally, for the Arab parties, the final days will all be about turnout. Having failed to agree on a “surplus vote agreement” between Ra’am and Hadash-Ta’al (which would not have helped either pass the threshold but could have netted them an extra seat if they both did), the parties will be hoping that they can mobilize Arab voters in the final days. For the first time in the campaign, Lapid – who this week told the Arabic-language media that he plans to change the controversial “Nation-State Law,” and is due to visit Nazareth this Tuesday – is actively working toward the same goal.
Interestingly, there have been some signs in recent days of an increase in interest among Arab voters, leading to an uptick in the predicted turnout. In 2021, Arab turnout stood at 45%, resulting in 10 seats (albeit with two viable Arab parties instead of the current three). According to respected Arab pollster Yosef Makladeh, the likely turnout among Arabs has risen from 42% ten days ago to 46% as of Wednesday. A continuation of this trend bodes well for the anti-Netanyahu bloc.
Ultimately, with nine days to go, the election is on a knife edge, with the Netanyahu bloc on the cusp of a majority but not quite there.
The Netanyahu bloc holds a very slight advantage, however, caused by the fact that there are four parties on the other side that are within a whisker of the threshold, while no party in his bloc is even close.
If any of them fail to make it, a sixth Netanyahu government looks a near certainty.
* Full disclosure: The authors of this piece have recently conducted polling on behalf of Meretz.
Simon Davies and Joshua Hantman are partners at Number 10 Strategies, an international strategic, research and communications consultancy, who have polled and run campaigns for presidents, prime ministers, political parties and major corporations across dozens of countries in four continents.
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