Israel’s three-peat election enters its final days with momentum appearing to favor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
In contrast to the last few polls ahead of last September’s vote, and the actual result in September which gave Blue and White 33 seats to Likud’s 32, Likud has edged ahead of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance in this week’s surveys, although those same surveys also point to continuing political deadlock between the blocs, with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu again holding the balance of power between them.
The last few days have seen the campaign turn increasingly personal and nasty, with Likud seeking to portray Gantz as incapable of running the country — including as an incoherent stutterer, even suffering from mental health problems, and a failed businessman. Netanyahu himself on Wednesday branded Gantz a coward for declining his challenge to a debate, said he “can barely get through a TV interview,” and declared that this showed he lacked the basic skills necessary to lead and protect Israel. He also claimed Iran had personal information on Gantz that rendered him vulnerable to “extortion.”
Gantz hit back later Wednesday by declaring that “nothing is real” in the attempts to denigrate him — “not the dementia, not the stuttering…” He said Iran has nothing embarrassing on him, and that Netanyahu had “lost it” and was “disseminating lies” against him. Just a year and a half ago, he said, Netanyahu invited him to join Likud and serve as defense minister; previously, he noted, Netanyahu extended his term as IDF chief. Netanyahu’s unfounded attacks, he said, were “a hate crime against Israeli democracy and society.”
Netanyahu has also claimed that one of Gantz’s most popular party colleagues, Gabi Ashkenazi, has previously made horrible remarks about the Druze community, and repeated his long-term assertion, firmly denied by Gantz, that Blue and White would partner with the majority Arab Joint List if necessary to form a Knesset majority. Ashkenazi on Wednesday called Netanyahu’s allegations “despicable” and “lies,” and reminded Israelis that it was Netanyahu who passed the “nation-state law” in 2018, which many in the Druze community regard as having rendered them second-class citizens.
Blue and White, for its part, is alleging that “the defendant Netanyahu,” if reelected, would turn Israel into Erdogan’s Turkey by engineering legislation that would curtail the criminal cases against him and rein in the power of the Supreme Court. Netanyahu’s trial for graft is due to start on March 17.
Likud’s rise in the polls would suggest that its tactics are working, at least a little. There may be no legitimate comparison between the indictment served against Netanyahu and the announced opening last week of an investigation into Fifth Dimension, a tech company that Gantz chaired. Gantz is not a suspect in the probe, but that has not stopped Netanyahu asserting that the investigation will culminate in a veritable “earthquake,” and the affair has plainly complicated a key thrust of the Blue and White campaign — that Gantz is Mr. Clean to Netanyahu’s Mr. Corrupt.
As with the run-up to the past two elections, Netanyahu seems the more energized of the two rivals, giving innumerable interviews and maximizing his vast social media reach. Gantz, still a relative political neophyte even though this is his third campaign, is unsurprisingly the less assured; what is more surprising is that his campaign has made relatively little use of the fact that, until 2015, he was commanding the IDF, heading the hierarchy that keeps this country safe. Likud’s rise in the polls coincided with this week’s flare-up of rocket attacks from Gaza, an issue on which Netanyahu should in theory have been vulnerable.
The stakes in Monday’s election are unarguably high. If he wins a majority, Netanyahu has promised to start annexing settlements and other West Bank areas unilaterally, whereas Gantz favors a negotiated approach. (Both of them, curiously, insist that their stance accords with the newly unveiled Trump plan.) While Gantz has moved to place the center-right Blue and White closer to right than center, seeking to draw votes from the Netanyahu camp, Netanyahu has moved righter still with his stress on unilateral annexation and a series of announced new settlement-building projects.
The nature of Israel’s relationship with the US (as the Jewish state becomes an increasingly partisan issue), its interaction with Diaspora Jewry, the responsibilities and influence of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community (in matters such as national service and national Shabbat observance), the place of Israel’s Arabs — all these acutely sensitive issues and more will be affected by the result on March 2.
Gantz argues that the very fabric of Israeli society, our very democracy, is under threat if Netanyahu wins. Netanyahu claims that our very existence in this dangerous region is in danger if Gantz does.
The result, ultimately, may hinge on the simple matter of turnout. In three rapid-fire election campaigns, relatively few Israelis have been moving across the political spectrum, from Netanyahu’s right-Orthodox bloc to Gantz’s center-left, or vice versa. Most Israeli voters have evidently long since made up their minds about whether they want more years of Netanyahu.
The key question on Monday may be which side — the “no-more-Netanyahus,” or the “only-Bibi-ers” — makes the greater effort to actually turn up and vote. And that will at least partially depend on which of the two rivals — the desperately vigorous Netanyahu or the insistently understated Gantz — is better able to inspire them to do so.