Israel election: Is part of Netanyahu’s base suddenly in play?

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev (right) and supporters of the Likud party hold a photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud campaign event in Ramat Gan, Israel, March 4.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a carefully cultivated reputation as Mr. Security, the leader who knows best how to protect Israel in the hostile Middle East environment. It’s a pitch that has played well for Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party among mostly conservative Sephardic Jewish voters, whose families immigrated to Israel from across the Middle East.

They’ve been mostly a bedrock Likud constituency ever since Menachem Begin, elected Israel’s first Likud prime minister in 1977, embraced them with housing programs for the working class. But amid complaints Mr. Netanyahu hasn’t addressed their socio-economic needs, many in the community are ready to try someone new, making them the swing vote in elections April 9.

Polls show Likud trailing the newly formed and centrist Blue and White alliance, which is led by a former military chief of staff and includes two others. “The government has ignored society. All they’ve done is talk about Iran,’’ says Shimshon Amiel, who owns a fruit stand in Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah market. “How can a young couple get the capital to buy a house? I’m looking to choose a party that will offer something socio-economic.’’

Why We Wrote This

Guns or butter? To outsiders, it may seem Israel’s elections turn on security. But Israel’s Mr. Security, Benjamin Netanyahu, may be vulnerable among swing voters worried about economic opportunity.

The produce stalls in the Hatikvah open-air market are adorned with pictures of bearded rabbis, soccer jerseys, and occasionally banners for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.

“Netanyahu: Right. Strong. Successful.”

Located in the hardscrabble working-class neighborhood of south Tel Aviv inhabited largely by Sephardic Jews whose families immigrated from across the Middle East, the Hatikvah market is regarded as an unwavering Likud bastion where party affiliation runs in the blood.

Why We Wrote This

Guns or butter? To outsiders, it may seem Israel’s elections turn on security. But Israel’s Mr. Security, Benjamin Netanyahu, may be vulnerable among swing voters worried about economic opportunity.

Despite the bribery charges Mr. Netanyahu faces from Israel’s attorney general, many declare there’s no substitute for his leadership. One reason is his carefully cultivated reputation as Mr. Security, the leader who knows best how to protect Israel in the hostile Middle East environment.

It’s a pitch that for many election cycles has played well among mostly conservative Sephardic voters, benefiting both Mr. Netanyahu and Likud.

From behind his fruit stand, however, Shimshon Amiel, 67, insists that he will not be voting for Likud this time around, exposing a vulnerability that Mr. Netanyahu’s rivals are eager to exploit.

“The government has ignored society. All they’ve done is talk about Iran,’’ says Mr. Amiel as he hands over the last of his bananas. “How can a young couple get the capital to buy a house? I’m looking to choose a party that will offer something socio-economic.’’

Mr. Netanyahu, in office for the past 10 years and running for an unprecedented fifth term as prime minister in elections April 9, is facing a potent challenge from a former military chief of staff, Benny Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White alliance. In a television poll published Sunday, Blue and White had a 32 to 28 seat advantage over Likud in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset. However, the same poll suggested Mr. Netanyahu could retain power by building a 63-seat coalition with other right-wing and religious parties.

In that scenario, disaffected Likud voters like Mr. Amiel are emerging as the political fulcrum.

Stocking up on generals

Blue and White has been trying hard to woo this constituency of moderate right-wingers. Its top candidates feature two other former army chiefs – one of them a former Likudnik – and a pair of former Netanyahu aides.

The party has crafted a conservative message on peace and security, with pledges to keep Jerusalem united and to retain Israeli army control over the entire West Bank – “the Land of Israel,” as the party refers to it – as part of any agreement with the Palestinians.

At the same time, Blue and White has also tried to focus attention on the prime minister’s corruption scandals. In one of three corruption cases, Israel’s attorney general plans to indict Mr. Netanyahu for allegedly easing regulations on Israel’s telephone monopoly in return for favorable coverage by a news website.

Public opinion analysts believe that Blue and White’s appeal has borne fruit.

“The most important constituency is the soft Likud,’’ said Roni Rimon, a political strategist who worked on Mr. Netanyahu’s 2009 campaign, in an interview with Israel Radio. “This is the constituency that will determine the fate of the campaign. And both parties are speaking to them.”

For decades, Mr. Netanyahu and Likud have relied on this constituency of working-class Sephardic Jews. They resented the elitism of Israel’s European founding political establishment. When Menachem Begin, Israel’s first Likud prime minister, embraced them with programs promoting housing among the working class, the party won a loyal following.

“There’s no substitute for Bibi,’’ says Yakov Shimshi, 50, owner of a Middle Eastern barbecue restaurant, using the prime minister’s nickname.

While acknowledging that Mr. Netanyahu could improve on socio-economic issues, Mr. Shimshi praised him for persuading President Donald Trump to recognize Israeli control of the Golan Heights.

Wooing the ‘soft Likudnik’

But part of the constituency has proven fluid. In previous elections, politicians who have resigned from the Likud have been able to lure supporters to other parties. In 2015, for example, Moshe Kahlon, a former minister, set up an independent center-right party, Kulanu, to appeal to Likudniks who felt left behind economically.

And Orly Levy, daughter of a former Likud working-class political leader, David Levy, is seeking to woo some of the constituency with her own party. Both could tip the balance among the coalitions following the elections.

According to a March 24 survey for Israel Today and the i24 News television channel, 3.4 percent of likely voters said they were vacillating between Likud and Blue and White, and another 2.8 percent were wavering between Kulanu and Blue and White.

“The soft Likudnik is someone that vacillates between Likud and the center, and someone who looks for strong leadership,’’ says Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American public opinion expert. “They want more on the social issues than the Likud has to offer, and they want someone who is going to care about them and represent them.”

At a Blue and White town hall meeting this week in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, Doron Avrahami asked former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi if the party had a plan to deal with tens of thousands of African migrants who have settled in south Tel Aviv.

Mr. Ashkenazi, who said Israel must deal “firmly” but “humanely” with the migrants, said Blue and White supports a deal Israel reached in 2018 with the United Nations but never followed through on: absorbing about half of the migrants while sending the other half to third-party Western countries.

Last-minute challenges

Mr. Avrahami, a 40-something sales manager and a self-described right-winger who voted for Netanyahu in the last election, vowed not to repeat that choice this time around.

“Why should I vote for a party that hasn’t done anything?” says Mr. Avrahami, a south Tel Aviv resident who complained that none of the parties had put the migrants issue on the agenda. Asked about the party of former military chiefs, he replies: “I can’t say that a chief of staff is right or left. They served the country.”

In the past week, Netanyahu has been buffeted by news of a possible criminal investigation into a stake he bought in a U.S. steel company in 2007. He reaped a 600 percent return in 2010 when the company was sold to a supplier of a German submarine maker that manufacturers ships for Israel’s navy.

He also had to cut short a visit to the United States after a rocket from the Gaza Strip hit a house north of Tel Aviv, spurring renewed fighting with Hamas that opened him up to attack over his handling of national security.

Amid Hatikvah’s vegetable stalls, Mr. Amiel faults Israel’s government for not taking a harder line against Gaza’s militant Islamic rules. But his main gripe seems to be that the rise in the cost of living and property values had put home ownership out of reach for his children. Maybe Blue and White could do the job, he speculates.

“There’s an audience of center-right people that might be receptive’’ to change, says Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “They may be able to shift the balance within the blocs. Even if we are only talking about a shift of two seats, that can have a huge shift in coalition dynamics.”

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