The Israeli election is, yet again, a contest between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz. On paper, the PM is clearly a better campaigner and should win easily. Gantz often seems lackluster and confused. Still, Netanyahu failed to win twice in a row. Why is that?
The answer is that Gantz has been a boring but effective candidate. The key question is whether his strategy will continue to work. If not, Netanyahu will be the big winner on Monday.
Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s political views are actually not so different. But their campaign styles are worlds apart. Both have some key strengths, and also some glaring weaknesses. Below is a comparison that explains why the contest between them is so close, why Netanyahu is now the favorite to win, and why Gantz may surprise him after all.
Netanyahu is a superb and highly experienced political machine. He is charismatic, savvy, and knows how to inspire an audience. Throughout the campaign he appeared in numerous election rallies, electrifying his fans and creating a sense of excitement and energy (see example below).
Next, the prime minister boasts unmatched experience in the security and diplomatic spheres. Moreover, regardless of his rhetoric, his decisions tend to be pragmatic and measured. This reassures many voters who might not be huge fans, but trust him more than any other candidate.
Netanyahu is also a master of appealing to the emotions, and fears, of his voter base. He excels at playing up concerns about Israel’s Arab politicians and regional enemies, and doesn’t hesitate to use questionable tactics in the process. Observers agree that nobody can match his thirst for winning.
Finally, Netanyahu is also skilled at taking the position of underdog. He successfully portrays himself as the defender of Israel’s lower classes and a victim of a persistent persecution campaign by the country’s elites. This helped him frame the criminal charges against him as yet another manipulative attempt by his left-wing rivals to topple him.
Gantz is not as flashy as Netanyahu, but his style offers some key advantages. He comes across as honorable and statesmanlike (see the video below, in English), and has largely maintained this composure while facing vicious attacks against him. For many Israelis fed up with dirty and aggressive politics, this is a breath of fresh air.
Moreover, Gantz’s relatively sleepy campaigns worked well for him so far. Experts say that this approach creates less urgency among rightist voters to head to the polls. In a way, Gantz is the perfect antidote to Netanyahu’s high-energy campaign by keeping emotions down.
Gantz’s credentials as a former IDF chief reinforce the above. Unlike previous contenders, it’s harder to argue that he will be weak on security. This attracts potential voters, while making some rightists less fearful about a Gantz victory (and therefore less likely to vote, and more likely to head to the beach on Election Day).
Netanyahu’s penchant for populism and the impression that he has no scruples hurts him, and not only among leftists. This is compounded by the indictments against him. At the end of the day, his style and what some see as questionable morality alienate some potential supporters.
On top of this, Netanyahu has a long record of broken promises. Particularly, there is a large gap between his right-wing rhetoric and pledges, and his actual actions (the recent annexation debacle further highlighted this tendency. I wrote about it here).
Finally, Netanyahu’s failure to form a new government in two straight elections made him more vulnerable. Some rightist journalists openly urged him to quit, based on the argument that he can no longer win elections. This, too, could convince traditional supporters to turn elsewhere.
While Gantz’s style does offer some benefits, as noted above, at the end of the day he is indeed the weaker campaigner. He is not super charismatic, gets confused often, and generally lacks the aura of a winning politician.
Moreover, Gantz and his party create ideological confusion and have failed to offer one key message, aside from their aim to unseat Netanyahu. While the PM excels at appealing to both hard and soft right voters, Gantz may end up alienating different constituencies with his vague message.
Finally, Gantz is hurt by the math. By now it has become clear that he will have a tough time forming a coalition under any scenario. This could turn off some voters who saw greater potential for victory earlier (especially given the latest polling numbers, which favor Netanyahu).
So Who Will Win?
The last polls suggest that the momentum is on Netanyahu’s side. After trailing throughout the campaign, Likud is now leading or tied with Blue and White, while support for Gantz is dropping.
This is likely the result of Netanyahu’s masterful campaign, Gantz’s lackluster efforts, and a growing perception that the Blue and White chief may be unsuitable for the job (and possibly corrupt, see here).
Still, there could be last minute changes, the pollsters may be wrong, and voter turnout remains a mystery. Here are my predictions, and here is a reminder why Israelis may be preparing an election surprise for their politicians.