Last weekend, Israel launched Operation Breaking Dawn against Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip. Though not as dramatic as past rounds, the operation saw over a thousand rockets, mortars and missiles fired from Gaza at Israel, and close to 200 Islamic Jihad targets struck by the IDF. The media of course provided round-the-clock coverage of the mini-war and those leading it.
It would be logical to expect this to have a significant impact on a hotly contested election campaign, in one direction or another.
Would it strengthen Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, proving he has the mettle to be PM and deal with Israel’s uniquely complex security challenges?
Would it bolster support for Blue and White–New Hope, with Benny Gantz as minister of defense?
Or would a return to the traditional issue of security boost Benjamin Netanyahu, who has spent his entire political career building an image of Mr. Security and the ultimate fighter against terrorism?
This was, after all, a real opportunity for Netanyahu to shine, highlighting his unique experience and enabling him to pivot away from his slightly awkward campaign focus on lowering the cost of living (which soared during his many years in power).
Politicos and analysts eagerly awaited the various post-operation polls to see which leader and party had come out of the operation on top.
The results were inconclusive.
Yesh Atid averaged 23.5 seats in this week’s four polls, up 1.5 from the previous week. In our weighted average – which considers polls over a longer period of time so as to identify real trends and filter out “noise” – it rose 0.8 seats to 23.1. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s Likud dropped 0.6 seats, from 34.3 to 33.7.
The outcome of this is an almost 1.5-seat swing, from a 12-seat Likud “lead” over Yesh Atid to 10.6 seats. In the week’s final poll, released on Friday morning, the gap between the two parties was down to eight seats, with Yesh Atid’s 25 seats its best number in a poll since early 2018.
In isolation, this is positive news for Lapid.
The problem, though, is where the votes came from. Blue and White-New Hope, the center-left bloc’s second biggest party, dropped 0.5 seats to 11.4, despite Gantz’s raised profile and perceived strong performance. While the decrease in support for his partner-turned-rival will likely not upset Lapid too much, trading seats between the two parties does little to change the overall picture.
Of greater concern to the anti-Netanyahu bloc, Meretz failed to pass the threshold in the most recent poll (released on Friday), the first time that has happened since mid-July.
While this finding could of course be a one-off (it only narrowly missed the threshold, and as we have regularly mentioned, the difference in a poll between winning four seats and zero can be just one respondent), it does point to perhaps the greatest strategic challenge for Lapid: any further gains he makes could increase the likelihood of Meretz, and even Labor, failing to pass the threshold, making it even harder for him – and easier for Netanyahu – to form a government.
More broadly still, despite Lapid having – politically at least – the strongest week of the campaign, the gains he made came from within his bloc, and the Netanyahu bloc only dropped by 0.3 seats to 61.2.
In essence, therefore, very little of substance changed.
So does this suggest that those who doubted Lapid’s ability to handle Israel’s security were proven right?
Not really. In the Channel 12 poll, 68% thought he managed Operation Breaking Dawn well, and only 19% said he didn’t. Interestingly, the results were almost identical amongst self-defining right-wing and left-wing voters.
So why, electorally, was the impact minimal?
First of all, a brand doesn’t change overnight. Lapid certainly seems to have passed a big test in the eyes of the Israeli public, and it is entirely possible – as some have argued – that he will continue to strengthen on the back of the perceived success of the operation.
Yet while the “delayed brand reaction” is a legitimate argument, the reverse is normally true. Highly visible events tend to lead to immediate polling “bumps” which often then dissipate over time.
The second explanation is that with five elections in quick succession, “electoral identity” is simply baked in. People know where they are on the map, and “who they are” in terms of their bloc. Therefore, movement within blocs will continue, but movement between blocs is much harder – certainly in the space of a few days.
This leads to a growing disconnect between job performance and vote intentions. A causal link that should be crucial is apparently less relevant in elections, which have become more tribal and identity-oriented than ever. Seventy percent of the country thought Lapid handled security well and dealt Palestinian Islamic Jihad a hefty blow; but the vast majority of them are still not going to vote for him.
And while clearly this is not purely an Israeli phenomenon, it is certainly problematic for participatory democracy when the perceived identity or “tribe” of a leader has become more important than their actions and achievements.
For parties and strategists, these latest poll numbers will only heighten the understanding that at this stage, it is the emotional levers of identity that they will need to pull to actually move voters. Because during the fifth election campaign in three years, rational arguments about “dull” issues such as performance and competence are likely to just fall on deaf ears.
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.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
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