MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: Netanyahu appeals to young voters with economic plan while Lapid butts heads with ex-ally Gantz

Aug 3, 2022 DEBKA FILES ISRAEL – Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu derided “unstable government” as the cause of soaring prices. He launched a two-point economic plan on Wednesday, Aug 3 with special campaign appeal to young voters in the November election. The former prime minister hit the nail on the head after a new poll found a majority of voters aged 18-25 (accounting for 20 out of 120 Knesset seats) leaning towards his own “rightist camp, after last month’s fall of the “government of change” that unseated him.

Netanyahu scored 52pc as preferred prime minister, compared with 17pc for Defense Minister Gantz. This despite the latter’s merger of his Kahol Lavan party with Justice Minister Gideon Saar’s Hope – which otherwise would have fallen at the parliamentary threshold. Their merger dropped a third potential bloc into the traditional two-horse election race, Israel’s fifth in less than two years.

The newly canvassed young voter offered 46pc support for the “Netanyahu bloc” compared with 16pc for the center-left factions, 10pc for the left and 8pc for the centrists. The young voter’s message:  Change is not what we want in the uncertain, often dangerous world we inhabit – especially during army service – but also in the foreseeable future of volatile security. Continuity and stability are safer – all the more so after the “government of change’s” experimental year in office left affordable housing, a decent income, steady prices and economic safety, – all necessary for starting a family – fading over the horizon for young couples beset with a surging cost of living.

Ganz embraced Saar to form a third bloc, which, he calculated, would tip the right-wing Likud bloc into joining forces for setting up a majority coalition government – with himself and without Netanyahu. Caretaker prime minister Yair Lapid determined to foil Gantz’s strategy, by poaching his supporters, although there is no sign of a positive response from any part of the rightist camp. Neither has bringing aboard Saar, a defector from the right-wing Likud, boosted the united group’s ratings. Just the reverse: As a single entity, the Gantz-Saar group is projected to win 11 (out of 120 seats) whereas in the last election Gantz polled 10 seats and Saar, 4.

Lapid’s Future party (rated at 24 seats) can anyway hardly hope to muster enough partners among the factions committed to the “never Bibi” axiom to form a coalition, without bringing in the anti-Zionist Arab bloc – even if joined by the Gantz group. Looking at numbers, the far left Meretz may just be rescued from oblivion by the esteemed Zahava Galon’s return to the lead, but only insofar as surviving the no-pass minimum of 4 seats. Labor remains in the single-digit class as does Lieberman’s party. In sum, these numbers are not enough to rebalance relative strength of the two main blocs.

The rightwing camp is meanwhile holding fairly firm against defectors. Internally, two far-right parties Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism and Itamar Ben-Dvir’s Otzma, are on the point of a union.

Yemina, now headed by Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked, is the only anomaly, She was left floundering with the remains of that party after Naftali Bennett quit as Prime Minister and party leader in July. Shaked joined forces last week with Kahol Lavan dropout, Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, to build the new “Zionist Spirit” party. They pledged to limit their their support to a “broad, inclusive” government and bar a narrow coalition – although she, unlike Hendel, prefers Netanyahu. Shaked believes that the new Zionist Spirit will attract a sizeable voter following. Even with a low figure, Zionist Spirit could make the difference for a right-wing majority government

Ignoring the partisan fluctuations, Netanyahu on Wednesday devoted his campaign to addressing the pressing economic woes with a concrete plan. He called for lowering the prices of four “inflation instigators”: electricity, gasoline, water and municipal taxes, which, if elected, he promised to freeze for a year, as well as lowering food prices via tax and tariff cuts.

The second step he promised was to lower taxes, including income tax, by further spreading out tax brackets, enlarging tax credit points, and cutting corporate taxes. To ease the painful easing the housing crisis, which has young Tel Avivians subsisting in squalid accommodation for exorbitant rent, the opposition leader pledged to issue government bonds that are linked to housing costs, so as to reduce demand; to cut down on time wasted for obtaining building permits; and to grant land subsidies for young couples. He would also provide free schooling for children up to age 3, “to enable both parents to go to work.”

Another interesting finding from the poll assessing the 18-25 group is the high rating afforded the far-right Smotrich-led party, which is projected to amass 14 seats, thereby usurping the second spot (after Likud’s steady 34) from Lapid’s Hope, which like Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, would rate 13 seats each. These new figures attest to growing numbers of young religious voters and their commitment to right-wing politics.

According to another figure: 72pc of young voters hold a dim view of all politicians as self-serving rather than caring for the country. Yet most are not deterred from casting their vote in three months’ time. Politics aside, resentment – even among the politically uncommitted – greets the charges of fascism and corruption hurled in high moral tones against the “Bibi camp” by self-styled “liberal” members of the outgoing regime, especially since many of the preachers sit on high in privileged circumstances that too many aspiring young people can only dream of. Netanyahu’s publicists make good use of this resentment and the social gap.

If this last poll proves to be an early straw in the wind, Lapid and Gantz as heads of the anti-Netanyahu groupings, are likely to fall back in the coming election and leave the field free for the comeback of a Netanyahu-led majority government. But November is still too far off to be sure.