Coronavirus could make the difference as Israelis head back to the polls

As many as 400,000 Israelis may stay away from the polls over coronavirus fears, a poll has found.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a tent during his visit to the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer in Ramat Gan, Israel, for discussion on the coronavirus, February 19, 2020 (photo credit: HEIDI LEVINE / POOL / AFP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a tent during his visit to the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer in Ramat Gan, Israel, for discussion on the coronavirus, February 19, 2020
(photo credit: HEIDI LEVINE / POOL / AFP)
With the Likud and Blue and White running neck and neck in the polls, and surveys showing a virtual tie, again, between the Right and Left blocs, all are looking for that one element that might tip the balance, upend the race, and make all the difference – the coronavirus.
A poll commissioned by the Rimon Cohen & Co. consulting firm and carried out by the Midgam polling firm found that 6.5% of 502 respondents said that they were considering not voting in the upcoming elections because of concern about the coronavirus. With 6.4 million Israelis eligible to vote in Monday’s election, this translates into some 400,000 people who – according to the survey – are considering not voting because they don’t want to risk exposure to the virus.
Which does not mean that all or even most of them will not turn out to vote. It does mean, however, that this is an issue on people’s minds, and that if fake news reports emerge on Monday in the social media about someone with the virus having voted at one particular polling station or another, that could conceivably keep people away from those locations.
In other words, the coronavirus and fake news could create a perfect storm keeping people away from the polling booths, something that could skew the election results.
According to Roni Rimon, a partner in the firm that carries his name, the survey indicated that the majority of those who expressed concern about the virus came from voters under the age of 34, with some 15% of those between the ages of 25-34 saying this was a consideration for them, and 13% in the 18-24 age group saying the same thing. Ironically, people in those age groups are the least affected by the virus, which sickens and kills mainly elderly people with compromised immune systems.
Rimon said that concern about contracting the virus by going to the polls might just be an excuse used by younger people to explain to pollsters why they are considering not voting.
In an election where both parties are working hard to ensure that their constituents turn out to vote – with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crisscrossing the country saying that persuading 300,000 Likud voters who stayed home last time to vote this time will be the difference in this election – voter turnout is essential. Thus, anything that could affect turnout could be a game changer.
Asked about the matter in an Army Radio interview, Netanyahu said that people need to be cautious “but should not panic.” He gave no indication in that interview that he was unduly concerned that fear of going to the polling places because of the virus will keep people away.
For Blue and White, high turnout is also essential, and in the last two elections the turnout in areas considered to be their bastions of support, such as Ramat Hasharon, far outpaced traditional Likud bastions, such as Dimona. If, for instance, someone spreads a rumor on Election Day of someone with the virus voting in Givatayim – a Blue and White stronghold – and people believe the rumor and stay home, that could have an impact.
The parties, Rimon advised, should be preparing a strategy so that in the face of fake news about the virus, they will be able to get out to their voters an authoritative message that there is nothing to be concerned about.
Another way to combat fake news will be for senior Health Ministry officials and immunologists to take to the air on Election Day – in the event of unsubstantiated reports about the virus – to discount the reports.
While a lower voter turnout because of the virus is bad for both candidates, an argument has been made that Netanyahu has benefited from intense media coverage of the virus, since it has pushed discussion of his upcoming trial off the front pages.
But this is a double-edged sword. Because just as the virus may have diverted attention from Netanyahu’s legal woes, it also has diverted attention from news of the investigation that was recently opened against Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s former hi-tech company, the Fifth Dimension.
Netanyahu’s legal problems are static – people know by now what is involved and what the issues are, and there has not been anything new since his court date was set for March 17 two weeks ago. The Fifth Dimension story, however, is new and dynamic. What the coronavirus has done by dominating the news over the last few days is weaken the impact of news of the investigation. And while Gantz has had a difficult week, with revelations about the investigation considered partly responsible for his party’s slippage in the polls over the last few days, things could have been a lot worse had the virus not dominated the news cycle for days.