Israel Pulse

Israel's Blue and White revamps campaign as numbers drop

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Article Summary
The Blue and White Party is marketed to the public as a kind of joint leadership of the left and right, but it undermines Benny Gantz' image as the one candidate strong enough to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The two rockets fired on the evening of March 14 from the Gaza Strip shook up Tel Aviv and its neighbors and veered the media coverage away from the troubles plaguing the Blue and White Party. An hour earlier, the Channel 12 news broadcast started with a dramatic report that Iran had hacked into the cellphone of the chairman of the party, Benny Gantz. Later an updated poll showed a continued trend of weakening for the party and a decline in the public’s view of Gantz’ suitability for prime minister compared with Netanyahu. The clear advantage to the right-wing bloc means that if the election were held today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be re-elected, though the Likud did weaken a bit with only 28 mandates. Gantz’ party is still the largest with 31. 

The surprise rocket fire in the direction of Tel Aviv immediately changed the political agenda and did more than save Gantz and Blue and White from embarrassing media scrutiny. For the generals’ party, such a security event is an opportunity. While Netanyahu, in his additional role as defense minister, assembled a security discussion at military headquarters, the Blue and White Party announced their own security consultation, a shadow cabinet of sorts. 

It all came at the end of a terrible week for Blue and White. March 10 polls in Yedioth Ahronoth and Haaretz showed a sharp decline in the number of mandates for the party while the Likud maintained stability. According to the polls, Blue and White have not managed to politically leverage the decision by the attorney general to indict Netanyahu. Gantz’ response was brief and ineffective. No internal information is needed to understand that something isn’t working in Blue and White’s campaign and that the initial momentum and excitement have worn off. For a new party that has existed for barely three weeks, a month before the election, that’s problematic. 

Blue and White is an alliance of three parties: Gantz’ Israel Resilience, former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem Party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. The effect was immediate and overwhelming. Blue and White took votes from the right and became the largest party with 37-38 mandates. It put the right-wing bloc in danger for the first time in the current election cycle.

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With the recent dip in the polls, the internal battles floated to the surface. Battles of ego between advisers to Lapid and Gantz caused tension and flare-ups in meetings at headquarters. Lapid, who brought a well-oiled party mechanism with him to the wedding along with a proven ability to run an election campaign, demanded and won the campaign's management. Gantz’ advisers moved aside with quite a bit of bitterness. Lapid has dictated an aggressive stance that has attacked Netanyahu and his corrupt rule on a personal basis.

In the meantime, Blue and White’s campaign sends many messages and has taken several zigzags. At the end of February, Lapid said that if they are charged with forming the government, they would turn first to the Likud and offer them to join on condition that Netanyahu resigns. But on March 13, Blue and White posted a video that presented all the Likud leadership as tainted by corruption.

But the main problem in Blue and White’s campaign is not a video or a zigzagging strategy, but a conceptual one. Gantz is the chairman of the party, but alongside him stand two other chiefs of staff and Lapid. The foursome is marketed to the public as a kind of joint leadership of the left and right. In videos they’re presented as having a combined 117 years of security experience. They tour the country together and are photographed at events and social occasions. On March 9, a Saturday night, Gabi and Ronit Ashkenazi hosted Gantz, Yaalon and Lapid and their spouses at their home for a light supper. Right away the social networks were full of photos of the happy foursome, attempting to broadcast a sense of family. On March 12, they set out together on a tour of the Gaza border, from which a photo was posted of them standing in row in a field. But the effort to give all four equal standing greatly damages the effort to build Gantz’ image as the man going head to head with Netanyahu

Blue and White’s joint leadership sends a confused message. The public wants to know who would be the man at the helm to make the difficult decisions and lead the nation. Instead, they see Ashkenazi promising that he would also have a hand on the steering wheel, and the subtext reads that Ashkenazi doesn’t trust Gantz. This position isn't strong enough when challenging a prime minister who is seasoned, dominant and still politically powerful despite the bribery indictment hanging over his head.

Nevertheless, the election is still an open contest. The rocket fire on the Tel Aviv area showed how fragile and fluid the agenda is. Blue and White is a party with three former military leaders who, with the right campaign, could call to question Netanyahu’s Mr. Security image in the face of the Gazan pressure cooker that is about to blow. For Netanyahu, the rocket fire to the center of the country requires a strong response that carries great risks. A military operation in Gaza less than a month before the election could well have complications and hurt him electorally.

Transferring the reins of campaign management to Lapid was an essential step, as Lapid is the most experienced in building a campaign. His imprint has already been felt. In the last two days, Blue and White’s videos have been more focused and have hit at Netanyahu’s soft underbelly: corruption. The next week will show if Blue and White is getting back in the game.

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Found in: rockets fire, benjamin netanyahu, moshe ya'alon, gabi ashkenazi, benny gantz, yair lapid, israeli politics, blue and white party

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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