Israel Pulse

Blue and White dumps ultra-Orthodox; tries to make up with secularists

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Article Summary
Two weeks ahead of elections on Sept. 17, Blue and White has changed its strategy to regain and broaden support among secularists after realizing it has been 'hemorrhaging votes,' mainly to Avigdor Liberman.

When a major party changes strategy two weeks before an election like Blue and White has done, drama must be lurking in the background. And so it was among the closest advisers of Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and the decision to make a 180-degree course correction and cease courting the ultra-Orthodox parties. In doing so, Gantz adopted the same position as the effective campaign being run by Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Liberman — opposing religious coercion and ultra-Orthodox extortion. Gantz hopes it will prevent voters from abandoning his party for Yisrael Beitenu.

In the language of election campaigns, Blue and White has found itself “hemorrhaging votes.” In fact, the party has been losing them for weeks, mostly to Liberman, though it has also lost a few to the Democratic Camp, Labor-Gesher and even the Arab Joint List. Unlike the Likud, which polls indicate has a very loyal base — there are very few undecided voters among the Likud — Blue and White’s electorate tends to be more hesitant and subject to outside influences. The assessment within Blue and White is that if Gantz had not changed direction, the party would continue to lose votes.

Regaining the votes it lost to Liberman is critical in the Blue and White’s strategy. Without those votes, the chances of it emerging as the largest party in the Knesset are meager at best. Thus Gantz stopped courting the ultra-Orthodox right and declared that he will put together a government based on the “secular majority in Israel.” What makes this all the more dramatic is that just a few months ago, he had been willing to promise the ultra-Orthodox all the stars in heaven.

Gantz did the right thing, tactically at least, but he is also taking an enormous risk. There is no example in the last few decades of a major Israeli party declaring of its own accord that it will exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties in the equation for forming a government. Such behavior is much more characteristic of a small to midsize centrist party, like Tommy Lapid’s Shinui or his son Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. Gantz’s advisers surely explained to him that there is no way to become the prime minister of Israel without the ultra-Orthodox parties, but Gantz also faced the possibility of losing everything. Under the circumstances, he needed to do something dramatic.

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Gantz likely took into account that he would be attacked by the ultra-Orthodox, as in fact he has been. Knesset members Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman, leaders of Yahadut HaTorah, issued a joint statement asserting, “Gantz made it quite clear that he is a man without values and without a spine.” Even if the ultra-Orthodox once believed the problem with the Blue and White lay in the person occupying its number two slot, Yair Lapid — to them, a red cape at a bull fight — they thought of Gantz as a potential partner. Now, however, the Blue and White's strategic shift will serve to reinforce and strengthen the alliance between the ultra-Orthodox and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud.

The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties weren’t the only ones to attack Gantz. Liberman immediately realized that he himself stands to pay a price for Blue and White’s “divorce” from the ultra-Orthodox, so to try and limit his losses he accused Gantz of having made a secret deal with the ultra-Orthodox and coordinating the move with them well in advance. As “evidence” of this, he noted that as soon as Gantz announced he would form a liberal unity government, the ultra-Orthodox released what seemed to be preprepared responses.

From the moment Blue and White was founded in the lead-up to the April election, it’s meta-strategy was to become the largest party in the Knesset so the president would ask Gantz to form a government. It almost came to pass. Blue and White won 35 seats, which was an excellent outcome, especially for a new party, but it wasn’t enough. The Likud under Netanyahu also won 35 seats, but more Knesset members recommended that he form the next government.

For 2019's round 2 election, Blue and White has not changed its strategy of emerging as the biggest party. The thing is that this campaign season, which seemed at first like it would be a long, drawn-out slog, hasn’t stopped offering up surprises.

Liberman was the one who blocked Netanyahu from forming a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox coalition after the April election, dragging him into another round of voting. Then, Liberman announced that he had no problem recommending Gantz to form the next government. All in all, Liberman has been gaining power and momentum. To many he is seen as the savior of the center-left. The Blue and White had long been touting Liberman as their partner in bringing down Netanyahu, but as time passed, Liberman became Gantz’s biggest problem.

Liberman's campaign against ultra-Orthodox coercion proved to be both convincing and effective. He hit the nail on the head by appealing to a powerful sentiment among a public fed up with how the ultra-Orthodox parties have extorted the government. True, Lapid has been vocal on the issue as well, but the message seemed to get smothered in the Blue and White under Gantz’s leadership. Thus, Liberman turned out to be the big winner, at least doubling his strength, from 5 Knesset seats to 10, according to the polls.

The political considerations of the people abandoning Blue and White make perfect sense. If Liberman is no longer an assured ally of Netanyahu, and he is the person who can put a stop to ultra-Orthodox extortion, then why not help strengthen him? All this led the people around Gantz to start devising a new approach. It was obvious to them that they had to do something to stop the hemorrhaging. If Blue and White voters saw their party losing strength, they would continue to abandon it, perhaps at an even greater rate as election day approached.

Gantz’s advisers settled on a “soft launch” for the party's dramatic shift. In an interview with Ynet on the morning of Sept. 3, Gantz mentioned as an aside that he would work to form a broad national government with a civil agenda. The goal was to gradually shift public opinion to accept this sharp turn in the campaign, while leaving room for regrets on the margins. Internal research by Blue and White found this to be the right move, and it has since become the party’s official strategy. All of the party’s spokespeople have aligned themselves with Gantz.

Blue and White's electoral base is for the most part secular. It has deep reservations about the alliance between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox because it means diverting billions of shekels to the ultra-Orthodox. Gantz now realizes that his pilgrimage to the courts of the various rabbis not only failed to help him electorally, it actually hurt him, particularly with Liberman’s campaign appealing to the secular community striking a chord with voters. Seeing the goal of heading the largest party in the Knesset moving farther and farther away, Gantz has now decided to do what it takes to bring those voters back home to Blue and White. Otherwise, he would be handing Netanyahu the next government on a silver platter.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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