Over the past two weeks, this column has analyzed the campaigns of the two leading candidates to form the next government: Yair Lapid and Benjamin Netanyahu. This week we assess the chances of the third potential candidate, Benny Gantz.
Unlike the first two, Gantz knows he will not lead the largest party, or even end the election with a sizable bloc behind him. But he does believe that he, unlike the others, has a viable shot at forming a broad-based, stable government after the elections, a claim this week’s article seeks to dissect.
From zero to (maybe) hero
Almost two years ago, as the unity government that he helped put together began to unravel, Benny Gantz’s political fortunes looked bleak. What was left of his Blue and White party was polling around six seats, and it would soon drop under the electoral threshold in most polls.
Today, he is in a very different place. Having finished the 2021 campaign with a surprisingly strong eight seats, he went on to bolster his image as a reliable, responsible minister of defense and, equally importantly, a team player in the “change government.”
But having been a supporting player in the outgoing government, Gantz saw his opportunity to be a more prominent, and even leading, player in the next one. The key lay in Israel’s three-year-long political paralysis, and in Gantz’s own reputation as an honest, trustworthy centrist with strong relationships across the political spectrum.
In fact, in our own polling over the years we have seen a core difference between Gantz and Lapid.
While Lapid has a much stronger and more devoted base, he also has a large group of people who strongly dislike him. To paraphrase a famous British advertising slogan, he is a tad Marmite – you either love him or hate him. Gantz, on the other hand, has far fewer committed supporters, but also very few people that really don’t like him. While in politics it is usually better to have a strong base, in the Israeli system in which you need to build a coalition with a range of different parties (and in some way to appeal to their voters), Gantz’s blander image can be an advantage.
In particular, he has good relationships with the Haredi parties, who it is thought respect his more traditional leaning and, in particular, his honest conduct during his unity government with Netanyahu. Most importantly for them, he isn’t Lapid. It been widely reported that were Netanyahu to again fail to get 61 seats, the Haredi parties could be open to joining a Gantz-led government.
But first he needs more seats. While Naftali Bennett has proven you can be prime minister with even six seats, realistically Gantz needs significantly more than the eight he began this campaign with to be considered a true contender.
His merger in July with Gideon Saar’s New Hope party helped him to increase his share to around 12 seats in the polls, making their new party – the National Unity party – at the time the third-biggest.
He now had a platform with which to again compete for the top job, and the media commentators, in what had been a fairly event-less campaign so far, ate it up.
Gantz’s theory of the case
The new National Unity party kicked off its campaign with a three-pronged strategy.
First, it aimed to occupy and dominate the center-right or “soft-right” space, Israel’s prime political real estate (for more on Gantz, Sa’ar and the soft right, see our article on the subject from mid-July). This not only positioned the party to capitalize on a large voting bloc with few other viable options, but also – as the theory went – put it in an ideal position to form a broad-based unity government following the election that could include the Haredi parties, and even elements of the right-wing bloc.
Second, National Unity doubled down on this positioning by anchoring its campaign on the concept of mamlachtiut (which we would translate as being statesmanlike). This concept is an ode to the old right wing of Menachem Begin, and later figures like Reuven Rivlin, Dan Meridor, and Moshe Ya’alon, all of whom blended right-wing views with human dignity, respect for democracy and the rule of law. Political commentators frequently bemoan the loss of these values from the modern Likud’s populist tone, and Gantz gambled on making this mamlachtiut the cornerstone of his campaign.
Finally, Gantz sought to leverage both his rivals’ perceived inability to form a government by claiming he, and he alone, will be able to form a broad-based government, spanning from Ra’am and Meretz on the left to the Haredi parties on the right, after the election. To date, his campaign ads have either highlighted this message, or contrasted his party’s mamlachti nature with that of Likud. Through this message, he has sought to fight Netanyahu for the mantle of “stability,” which has become a dominant feature of this campaign.
This strategy is of course based on an attempt to emulate the Naftali Bennett model of forming a government not by being the biggest party, but rather by being the party with the most leverage, in order to bring the most parties together.
Writing in the week of the Gantz-Sa’ar union, we noted that mergers of this nature tend to add up to less than the sum of their parts in Israeli politics. In practice, so far the party has equaled pretty much exactly the sum of its parts, polling between 12 and 13 seats.
While these numbers probably fell slightly short of initial expectations, they represented a solid haul and left National Unity as the third-biggest party and the default third option to form a government if the other two failed.
However, in recent weeks the party’s polling has begun to slide, from almost 13 seats a month ago to 11.6 today. In the past week, it has been overtaken by Religious Zionism, becoming the fourth-biggest party in our average.
While where you place doesn’t technically matter, coming a distant fourth would seem to limit Gantz’s credibility to form the next government. In fact, his own number three, Gadi Eisenkot, himself said that a party with fewer than 13 seats forming a government “does not smell good.”
So how does Gantz recover?
Unlike Lapid and Netanyahu, Gantz does not have a strong or defined base, and therefore the base-driven, turnout closing strategy we envisage them adopting is not a viable option for him. Furthermore, unlike last time, his party is not “dangerously close,” or even close, to the threshold – rendering irrelevant the tried and tested gevalt strategy of “Help, vote for us to save us!”
So if he wants to win back the two or three seats that he believes will make him a real player, he has two options. Either he goes up against Lapid on his left, or he seeks to win over the voters currently supporting Ayelet Shaked’s Jewish Home party (which, despite being under the threshold, is regularly polling at over two percent).
The former tactic puts more seats in play, but it isn’t a great look for the sitting defense minister – campaigning on a statesmanlike platform – to be attacking the prime minister and most likely candidate from his own bloc. It also does little to stop Netanyahu getting to 61 seats. On the other hand, tacking right and going after Shaked’s votes is unlikely to net more than a seat, though that seat could potentially be decisive in such a close election.
In the end, the question is, does the size of Gantz’s party really matter? For sure it would be better for National Unity to have more seats, but it is ultimately fairly arbitrary. In recent years, Israeli voters have woken up to the fact that our system places little emphasis on being the largest – or even second-largest – party. While it may make him seem more credible, or “smell better,” winning 13 or 14 seats would probably not change Gantz’s coalition arithmetic.
As long as both Netanyahu and Lapid are unable to form a government – of which there is a pretty good chance, although the Netanyahu bloc has this week inched up to 60.4 seats in our average, ever closer to the coveted 61 seats – then Gantz will have his opportunity. He will be hoping that, in this scenario, the public pressure to avoid a sixth election will be so great that rivals from across the spectrum will be prepared to come together under his mamlachti leadership as a compromise. Communicating this message would be unlikely to net Gantz more votes, but could help him lay the groundwork for the coalition negotiations as the “palatable compromise candidate.”
By this logic, his best bet is probably not to go gung-ho in a bid to win another seat or two, but rather to try and protect his 12 seats, while playing the long game and maintaining good relations with all sides. It may not make for a blockbuster finish to the campaign, but if Netanyahu doesn’t get to 61, the “real” campaign for Gantz will begin the morning after the election.
* 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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