In the last week, it has been clear that Kachol Lavan believes that the key to breaking the political gridlock in Israel and emerging from the third election with a viable coalition is to woo right-wing voters who are firmly in the Likud coalition. From campaign ads targeting the national religious sector by highlighting the chaos among smaller right-wing parties with the tagline “your home is no longer a home” (a play on the Jewish Home party) to Benny Gantz making a campaign stop in the nationalist Ir David archeological park, Kachol Lavan’s messaging has been unmistakable. This culminated in Tuesday’s pledge by Gantz that if elected he will annex the Jordan Valley in coordination with the international community. That promise threw Gantz headfirst into an issue that remains a hallmark of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s campaign efforts since the first round of elections in April.
There is a policy aspect and a political aspect to Gantz’s newest Jordan Valley proclamation. On the policy front, Gantz’s promise to annex the territory in coordination with the international community is the equivalent of promising to build a wall on the southern border but only if Mexico pays for it; wishful thinking at best, an intentionally empty promise at worst. The Trump administration may at some point give its blessing to Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley, but as with the Jerusalem embassy move, the rest of the international community will not be following along. Gantz’s statement is not a pledge to annex the Jordan Valley; it is actually closer to pledging not to annex it.
But that is not what Gantz wanted people to hear, which is what makes the politics of Gantz’s Jordan Valley statement less straightforward. It is clear at first glance why Gantz keeps on returning to the Jordan Valley issue and pretending to flirt with annexation, whether he formulates it as he did on Tuesday or whether he talks about maintaining permanent Israeli control there as he has done in the past. It is part and parcel of the strategy to attract right-wing voters. But given the political landscape, continuing to harp on Jordan Valley annexation is an odd and simplistic move, and on balance hurts Gantz rather than helps him.
For starters, playing follow the leader with Netanyahu on annexation is unnecessary given Kachol Lavan’s previous electoral successes. In the party’s first ever election, it won over a million votes and was the largest faction in the Knesset with 35 seats. In the second election, it was again the largest faction in the Knesset with 33 seats. Despite the coalition dynamics that have prevented Gantz from forming a government, it is undeniable that Kachol Lavan’s electoral achievements have been momentous. Resorting to panicked stunts is not only unnecessary in light of the first two elections, it makes Kachol Lavan appear weaker than it is.
No matter that he came late to the issue, discovering annexation just days before the April election, Netanyahu is now associated with it in a way that Gantz never will be. Gantz is not going to be more hawkish than Netanyahu on this issue, and playing catch-up is not going to benefit him electorally. A voter who deeply cares about Jordan Valley annexation is going to vote for Netanyahu over Gantz anyway, no matter how many times Gantz visits the area and no matter how many medjool dates he eats. No voter basing his or her vote on the Jordan Valley is shifting from Likud or one of the national religious parties to Kachol Lavan because there will be too many ideological divides on other fronts.
Furthermore, it is tactically strange for Gantz to change the subject to one that plays to Netanyahu’s strengths. Israel’s political chattering class has now spent days on Jordan Valley annexation because Gantz raised it. People are not talking about Netanyahu’s corruption, they are not talking about his immunity push, they are not talking about unaffordable housing, and they are not talking about the crisis of the lack of beds in Israeli hospitals. These are all issues that play to Gantz’s benefit and are weaknesses for Netanyahu. Instead, people are talking about Gantz and Netanyahu taunting each other on Twitter about which one is more dedicated to the Jordan Valley, and incredibly it is all at Gantz’s initiative. Netanyahu is probably chuckling and shaking his head in disbelief at his good fortune while Gantz flounders around, issuing clarifications about what he really meant.
There is also little evidence that there are right-wing votes left to be cannibalized. After two elections, with no surprising changes happening between the second and the upcoming third (Netanyahu’s indictments were priced into voters’ equations long ago), any anti-Netanyahu Likud voters who have not already migrated to Kachol Lavan aren’t going to do so this time. What Gantz may have been looking to do with his Jordan Valley talk is to pull some of the anyone-but-Bibi voters away from Avigdor Liberman and over to him. But if that was his motivation, it is again an odd move as Liberman is not someone associated with annexing the Jordan Valley, so taking a more hawkish stance that doesn’t play directly into Liberman’s strengths is not a maneuver that will have any impact. There may be voters who gravitated toward Liberman as a protest vote against Netanyahu and are now looking to jump elsewhere as Liberman did not deliver after the second election, but in that event they wouldn’t need Gantz’s Jordan Valley pledge in order to come aboard the Kachol Lavan bandwagon. And Gantz’s move may end up alienating left-wing Kachol Lavan voters who opt to move to Labor-Gesher-Meretz, or simply stay home if they think that a vote for Gantz is no different policy-wise than a vote for Netanyahu.
Gantz is trying to reach into Netanyahu’s bag of tricks, but it doesn’t suit him nearly as well. Rather than use a niche issue to increase his margin, he ended up making himself look untrustworthy, unserious, and won’t gain anything from it politically. Rather than try to borrow from Netanyahu, Gantz should be confident that he can again deliver more votes for Kachol Lavan than any other party receives, and work on drawing a contrast with Netanyahu rather than try to out-Bibi Bibi.