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Netanyahu’s new rival is surging in Israel’s polls

Here’s why Benny Gantz’s ambiguity on Palestinians is a winning strategy.

- February 25, 2019

In April, Israeli voters will head to the polls to elect a new government. Despite corruption charges, surveys have shown Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party with a comfortable lead over the largely fragmented opposition. Yet in the past two weeks, Benny Gantz, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff with no political experience, has surged in the polls. After joining forces with Yesh Atid, Israel’s second-largest opposition party, Gantz has emerged as Netanyahu’s principal rival for leadership of the country.

Gantz’s centrist political party, Blue and White, leads the opposition despite being particularly vague on Israel’s most important ideological cleavage: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In what has become something of a joke, Gantz has both stated that he would seek peace through compromise with the Palestinians and has run graphic ads boasting of the damage inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza during his time as head of the IDF.

Why is Gantz surging despite his ambiguity on the country’s most important political issue? Our research on public opinion in Israel shows his success is because of, not despite, his vagueness. For more than a decade, Israeli attitudes toward the conflict have been increasingly characterized by dissonance, which a string of short-lived centrist parties have leveraged in elections.

A boom-and-bust pattern of new centrist parties emerges.

For many, Gantz’s recent surge seems to have come out of nowhere. In reality, his party is only the latest instance in a recurring pattern. For the past two decades, almost every Israeli election has seen the emergence of a new centrist party, typically led by a fresh and charismatic leader. While these parties often won a surprising number of votes, by the next election, they had lost much of their appeal and were eclipsed by newer centrist parties in the same mold.

Between 1996 and 2015, nine different centrist parties have followed this path, most vanishing in less than two electoral cycles. As a bloc, however, the ongoing parade of centrist parties has created a stable centrist presence. As the graph below illustrates, the size of this centrist bloc has generally matched that of the leftist and rightist party blocs since the mid-2000s.

Source: Authors’ calculations. The three smaller blocs in gray include the Ultra-Orthodox (UO) parties, Arab-Israeli parties and the National Religious (NR) party.
Source: Authors’ calculations. The three smaller blocs in gray include the Ultra-Orthodox (UO) parties, Arab-Israeli parties and the National Religious (NR) party.

The platforms of Israel’s self-proclaimed “center parties” have varied on some issues, including the economy, state-religion relations and pensioner rights. But their platforms share one important common element. Like Gantz, they all take ambiguous, often contradictory, positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, placing themselves between the dovish left and hawkish right.

More Israeli voters hold dissonant attitudes toward the conflict.

This ideological ambiguity explains the centrist bloc’s success, despite rapid changes in its composition. For nearly four decades after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israeli partisan politics was largely divided between supporters of a negotiated two-state solution on the left and supporters of military actions and settlement on the right. But by the mid-2000s, the peace process had reached an impasse that neither negotiations nor military action was able to break.

This gridlock, along with recent cycles of violence, has convinced a growing number of Israelis that territorial compromise with the Palestinians is necessary. Somewhat paradoxically, this realization has been accompanied by increased distrust of the Palestinians. The result, surveys show, is an increasing proportion of “skeptical doves” in the Israeli electorate: voters who support a two-state solution in principle but doubt that it can be achieved in practice.

This tension is evident in monthly Peace Index surveys published by the Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute. The graph below compares trends by month in net support for: (1) conducting peace negotiations and (2) belief that such negotiations will lead to peace. Although support for both positions has ebbed and flowed over the years, a gap between support for negotiations and optimism about their prospects emerged in the mid-2000s and has remained wide.

Source: Authors' calculations based on Peace Index data. All monthly surveys were conducted with a representative sample of around 600 Israelis.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on Peace Index data. All monthly surveys were conducted with a representative sample of around 600 Israelis.

Dissonance increases voting for the center.

How do these contradictory opinions about peace affect Israeli elections? Between 2006 and 2015 — the period during which the gap between attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict widened — these dissonant attitudes have consistently been correlated with voting for centrist parties. Using statistical analyses of survey data from the Israeli National Election Study (INES), we find that dissonance — the combination of high support for a two-state solution and low confidence that an agreement with the Palestinians can be reached — is the best predictor of voting for the center.

Two more findings stand out. First, our statistical analysis rules out other explanations. Centrist voters do not exhibit unique demographic, social or ideological traits compared with voters for rightist or leftist parties. Second, a distinctive centrist base has emerged since 2006. Even as the parties themselves come and go, the majority of centrist voters in one election had voted for another centrist party in the previous election.

Ambiguity helps in getting elected but not in being reelected.

These findings imply that Gantz is helped, not hurt, by the vagueness of his message. Yet our analysis also reveals the limits of this help. As previous one-hit-wonder parties have discovered, it is easier to appeal to dissonant voters than to deliver on an ambiguous platform once in office. A robust centrist solution, one that involves neither negotiations with the Palestinians nor continued occupation, is still missing, if it is even possible.

Lacking a clear solution, most centrist parties eventually joined governments that perpetuated rather than weakened the gridlock. By the next election, these parties had lost most of their appeal. It remains to be seen whether, and if so how, Gantz will manage to escape a similar fate.

Alon Yakter is a lecturer (assistant professor) in the School of Political Science, Government and International Relations at Tel Aviv University.

Mark Tessler is the Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan.