/ 12 March 2015

Netanyahu’s fate hangs in balance

Face-off: Isaac Herzog
Face-off: Isaac Herzog

Israel’s opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, appears to be gaining momentum in the run-up to next week’s general election, triggering a rising sense of panic in Likud, the party of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Two new polls suggest a lead of three to four parliamentary seats for the Zionist Union, with internal polling from both parties indicating a wider gap.

A text message sent to Likud activists, imploring them to get out friends and relatives to vote on Tuesday, reads: “We are in danger of really losing!” It goes on: “We must save the day and make sure that every single one of our friends/acquaintances/family makes it to the polls on election day and votes for the Likud. Wake up!”

Herzog, the Labour leader who has formed an electoral alliance with former justice minister Tzipi Livni under the Zionist Union banner, has been running neck and neck with Netanyahu, who is campaigning to serve a fourth term as prime minister.

Coalition governments
Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, which invariably produces coalition governments, Netanyahu still has an advantage. But in the last days of the campaign, there is a new sense of optimism among the Zionist Union’s supporters and MPs.

At a campaign meeting in Be’er Sheva, in the Negev Desert, Herzog told a gathering of the faithful, the curious and a handful of supporters of other parties on Tuesday that he represented hope for those who feel excluded in Israel’s dysfunctional economy and for those who seek the possibility of peace. He and Livni promised to end Israel’s increasing isolation in the international community.

According to MP Erel Margalit, Zionist Union supporters were buoyed by the large turnout at an anti-Netanyahu rally in Tel Aviv last weekend and by leaks of internal surveys that suggest Netayanhu’s position is worse than published polls suggest.

“I’ve become optimistic in the last few days,” Margalit said. “I wasn’t so optimistic before. In the last few days I have felt a sense of building momentum. I feel a change is coming. People want a leadership based on something else than fear.

“The sense of fatalism that has been around in a large part of the campaign – people thinking that whatever happens they will get Netanyahu as prime minister again – I think that is what has changed.”

Retired engineer Aron Klipper (71) echoed Margalit’s sentiments. “I’m here because we desperately need a change of atmosphere in Israel. We need young people to be able to earn enough and afford places to live,” he said.

But with only days to go before the election, a key question is whether Herzog can defeat Netanyahu when it comes to the post-election horse-trading over forming a government. In the tortured electoral mathematics of Israel’s coalition-building, Netanyahu theoretically still has a marginal advantage with six potential parties he can negotiate with to form a government, against Herzog’s five.

Electoral treshold
Among the factors that will come into play is whether some of the smallest parties – including the left-wing Meretz – will win enough votes to meet the electoral threshold for representation in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament.

And if the election turns out as close as the polls currently suggest, President Reuven Rivlin could insist on negotiations for a national unity government embracing both Likud and the Zionist Union.

Herzog has tried hard to increase his visibility in a campaign dominated by the personality of Netanyahu, not least in a long interview with the author and columnist Ari Shavit that sympathetically depicted the opposition leader munching peanuts for energy on the campaign trail and visiting Likud strongholds.

The stall Herzog has laid out has been a practical and emotional soft nationalism, open to negotiating a two-state solution with the Palestinians, and seeking a pragmatic middle way through Israel’s problems.

“I am a social democrat who wants both a free market and a just state. I am a pragmatist who tries to act fairly. I try to bring the contradictions into harmony and unity,” he told Shavit.

In contrast, rivals have often sounded inflammatory appeals, not least Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who suggested about disloyal Israeli Arabs: “Those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done – we need to pick up an axe and cut off his head.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015