Workers hang a Blue and White Party billaboard showing its leader Benny Gantz and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of the party's campaign on February 17, 2020 in Tel Aviv, Israel. by the Forward

In third round of Israeli vote, Netanyahu and Gantz must expand electorate

It was supposed to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s big day, perhaps the push he needed to win the third round of Israel’s endless national election. He was standing next to President Donald Trump at the White House as Trump unveiled his much-awaited ‘plan of the century’ to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It included almost everything Israel’s right-wing could hope for, including a green light for Netanyahu to annex of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

But the Jan. 28 announcement seems hardly to have made a ripple in the political map as Israelis head back to the ballot boxes on March 2, for the third time in 11 months. Recent polls all show the situation is virtually identical to September’s outcome: A deadlock capable of sending Israel to a mind-blowing fourth election. With Netanyahu’s trial on corruption charges slated to start shortly after the election, the stakes seem even higher and the situation more surreal.

Once, Israeli politicians dreamed of leading the largest party in the Knesset (Parliament). Winning the most seats = was the ticket to forming a viable coalition and becoming prime minister. However, in recent years – and especially now – winning the most seats is not enough — it’s all about the size of your ‘block,’, the term used to describe the parties loyal to you before the start of coalition negotiations.

As Israel heads to the polls for a 3rd time Netanyahu and Gantz must expand electorate

Netanyahu’s block, including his Likud Party and the religious Zionist and Haredi parties, is expected to win roughly 54 Knesset seats. These parties have pledged to sit with no one other than Netanyahu as prime minister. Opposing him, and polling at 53 seats, is the block defined mainly by its desire to end Netanyahu’s reign and led by Benny Gantz, the former military chief, and his new Blue & White Party; it includes the merged Meretz and Labor parties and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu faction. All have promised not to sit in a Netanyahu-led government.The remaining 13 seats seem likely to land with the Joint List, the voice of Israel’s Arab citizens, who say they will not join a government led either by Gantz or Netanyahu.

Of course neither 54 nor 53 seats is more than half of 120, and thus not enough to form a majority coalition. That, essentially, is why Israelis are gearing up to vote again, after Netanyahu and Gantz failed to get to the magic number of 61 seats after elections in both September and April, 2019.

This stalemate has made one factor more crucial than ever: voter turnout. It may be the only way to break the deadlock. Both sides are focusing their campaign on approximately 250,000 Israelis, a number representing four to five more Knesset seats — possibly enough to shift the balance of power and yield a majority. While the parties of course are trying to win over voters from the other side, they are mainly focused on the 30% of the population that did not vote in September.

The Likud launched a campaign publicly stating this was the goal. Netanyahu is working hard to convince farmers and Ethiopian Jews to vote for him. He even pledged to bring to Israel 400 of the Falash Mura — Ethiopians who want to make aliyah — waiting in transit camps near Gondar and Addis Ababa.

Gantz is also targeting specific groups, namely politically and religiously moderate Zionists and right-wingers who are fed up with Netanyahu’s personal conduct.

Netanyahu has in recent weeks used just about every ace in the deck in his attempt to lure voters. The meeting with Trump and promises of annexation were followed by a visit to the Kremlin, from where he flew back with Na’ama Issachar, an Israeli backpacker who had been imprisoned by the Russians. Shortly after, he flew to Uganda for a historic meeting with Sudan’s leadership. While these actions improved his approval rating as prime minister, they did not change the likelihood of people voting for him.

With the prospect of yet a fourth balloting on the horizon, and Israelis beginning to suffer from the absence of a governmental budget needed to fund many social programs, an unprecedented conversation has emerged about a ‘Jewish majority’ government. Since uniting 61 Knesset members seems impossible, some analysts and politicians have suggested that the next prime minister should be the man who can win the majority of Jewish lawmakers’ support. That person would lead what is called a “minority government,” which was only initiated once in Israel’s political history – by Yitzhak Rabin in 1994.

Not long ago, such thoughts were off-limits. Now, Arab legislators are being ignored and discounted, and the delegitimization of Arab voters from previous elections has expanded. Blue & White is focused on luring people from the right, and thus distancing itself from the Joint List – though it will need its silent agreement to form a coalition the day after the elections, if Gantz has the ‘Jewish majority.’

Which brings us back to voter turnout. In Israel’s system, parties need to get at least 3.25% of the overall votes cast in order to make it into the Knesset. So if more people — any people — show up, niche parties, including Otzma Yehudit from the radical right, are less likely to make it in, possibly shifting the balance of the blocks.

However, it is not just a question of how many people vote. It is also a question of where. As in the United States, geography is a strong predictor of political priorities.

In Netanya, a Likud stronghold, only 59% of eligible voters showed up in September, compared to nearly 70% at the national level. In Bat Yam, long considered a Likud-oriented city, Likud received nearly twice as many votes as Blue and White – but the city had only 52% turnout, suggesting that Netanyahu left a lot on the table there. . Can he get more people to show up in his party’s traditional strongholds? He understands this could win the elections for him, and – unlike the previous two rounds – he is out in the field, holding two or three rallies almost daily.

Gantz also understands these numbers. Blue & White also saw lower than average turnout in several of its key areas: including Tel Aviv (62% turnout), Ramat Gan (66%), and Herzliya (66%). To replace Netanyahu, Gantz needs his loyalists to show up at the polling stations.

This need will only grow as the Likud pushes its campaign – in a parliamentary system where the results are relative to voter turnout, an increase in Likud voters hurts the other parties. This relativism was felt in September, when the Joint List increased turnout in the Arab sector, from 50% to nearly 60%. This not only gave it more seats – but strengthened its position overall.

Hanging over this election, like the past two, is Netanyahu’s pending prosecution. He was indicted in November on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. His trial is scheduled to start weeks after the polls close. He appears to be holding the country hostage in his bid to avoid the courts: his goal is a majority of 61 legislators who will grant him immunity from trial.

With the party heads publicly promising to only sit with their current blocks, there are two ways out of this mess: Either 250,000 Israelis change the balance between the blocks, or one of the political parties breaks its promise and switches side – providing the other camp the majority they seek.

This is the second of a series of articles about the March 2 Israeli election by Dana Weiss, chief political analyst for Israel’s Channel 12 TV. Read the first article.

Israel votes: Netanyahu, Gantz must expand electorate

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