Which is a surer way to become prime minister: having a bigger party or a bigger bloc? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Resilience Party leader Benny Gantz each bet on a different answer this week.
On Thursday morning before 6 a.m., Gantz and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid released a joint statement declaring that they would be running together as one, big party called Blue and White, with three former IDF chiefs of staff in their top five: Gantz, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi.
For weeks now, the polls have shown that a Gantz-Lapid franken-party will surpass or come close to the Likud’s size, and Thursday’s polls showed Blue and White beating Likud by several seats. The party’s leaders and their closest advisers have been negotiating for weeks, as Israel Resilience’s numbers rose and then dropped slightly on their own, but the merger was always a strong option.
The caveat is that the polls are not prophetic. In Israel, there are too many options and scenarios, as well as the 3.25% electoral threshold to keep in mind, so the system is far from perfect. As former president Shimon Peres said, polls are like perfume; you can smell them, but don’t taste them.
But polls are the only way we can see what the public is thinking on any given day – again, we can’t really predict what will be on April 9 – and political leaders use them to make decisions.
Looking at the polls, it was clear that Gantz and Lapid had no way to be an alternative to Netanyahu with 20 seats compared to the Likud’s 31, the results in last week’s polling average.
So, with their eyes on the premiership, Gantz and Lapid persisted in their talks and made a deal.
The only problem is that the deal kills MK Orly Levy-Abecassis’ Gesher Party, and shrinks their coalition partners on the Center and Left.
Meanwhile, the Right bloc is still consistently larger in the vast majority of the polls. It’s a close race – especially if Arab parties, which have never joined a coalition, recommend Gantz – but Netanyahu is clearly depending on the bloc and actively working to grow it.
Netanyahu didn’t have the same problem that Gantz and Lapid did with a large party. For most of its existence – except for 2006-2009 – Likud was clearly the big right-wing party and the others were its satellites, of varying sizes. And that’s how it is in this election as well.
But Netanyahu saw a right-wing bloc with even fewer than the 66 seats it had in the last election – and with parties like Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi hovering around the electoral threshold, it was too easy for that majority to shrink to the point of becoming a minority.
So, with extensive polling in hand, Netanyahu set out to do the one thing that he thought would bring more votes to the bloc: convince Bayit Yehudi to add the right-wing extremist party Otzma Yehudit to its list on Wednesday. Thursday’s polls brought mixed results following the addition of Otzma.
Netanyahu’s reliance on the bloc rather than growing the Likud even further has its precedents.
In 2009, the Likud was the second-largest party, just one seat behind Kadima. But Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister’s Office with the support of a majority in the Knesset, while then-Kadima leader Tzipi Livni was left to serve as opposition leader.
Netanyahu surely still hopes that Likud will be the largest party in the Knesset – and there is still a chance that will happen. But he didn’t want to take any chances that there won’t be a larger right-wing bloc to make him prime minister.
On Thursday, Gantz and Lapid united with only 47 days left until the election. That means plenty can change when it comes to whose party or bloc is bigger. We’ll only know who made the right bet after the polls close on April 9.