Israeli ballot box

Moshe Kahlon: Will he be the kingmaker of the next government?  Photo by Dikla Bassist Shafrir/Creative Commons
Moshe Kahlon: Will he be the kingmaker of the next government?
Photo by Dikla Bassist Shafrir/Creative Commons

Israelis will head to the polls within days to cast votes for the country’s 20th Knesset. And as Election Day draws closer, the question has become whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will retain his position or whether Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition Labor party and its joint Zionist Union slate with Hatnuah, will win out.

Pundits largely agree that the most likely outcome is a national unity government that probably will be tasked with conducting electoral reform.

But a narrow Netanyahu government that would pair his Likud party with right-wing religious parties is possible — as is an outright Herzog victory, provided centrist parties deliver in a big way.

On March 17, Israelis will vote for one of 12  party lists of candidates. The threshold for any party to win seats in the Knesset is 3.25 percent of the total vote, with the legislative bodies’ 120 seats divvied up by vote percentages.

Polling data indicates that Israelis rank socio-economic issues, cost of living and social equality as high on their list of priorities.

“What we’re seeing, what the polls are showing, is that more Israelis are focused on socio-economic issues and cost of living [rather] than security issues,” said Guy Ziv, assistant professor at the American University School of International Service and author of Why hawks become doves: Shimon Peres and foreign policy change in Israel.

Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution, in a recent panel discussion alongside former Knesset member Yohanan Plesner of the now-defunct Kadima Party, agreed that Israelis say social issues are number one, but come Election Day, security issues could still reign.

“By and large, Israelis still vote on traditional issues,” he said. But, he said, there is maneuvering on the edges when it comes to such issues as housing costs, environmental concerns and poverty.
Most politicians are on the same page on Iran and other security issues, according to Plesner.

“The main dogma … around security has crumbled,” he said. “By and large, even [right-wing politician and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett] doesn’t want to control Palestinians in the
West Bank.”

The policy differences among politicians are really minute, Plesner said. He predicted that could help centrist parties focused on the economy and civil rights, such as Yesh Atid and Zionist Union,
gain traction.

Netanyahu, whom Israelis refer to as Bibi, has played up his security bona fides, pressing on the Iran nuclear negotiations in talks both in Israel and before the Congress, in an appearance this month that many pundits viewed as a campaign tactic.

But Netanyahu’s Washington speech, which proved controversial among the American public, garnered the prime minister little sway at home.

“The speech had limited impact,” said Ziv. “It may have given Netanyahu a very mild boost. He is tied in the polls, so the speech is not a game changer.”

Israelis are largely indifferent to the Iran issue in Ziv’s estimation. He noted that it was not brought up in a recently televised debate.

“I think Israelis are tired of Netanyahu exaggerating the Iran issue,” continued Ziv. “His warnings have not materialized in terms of timeline.”

Despite so-called “Bibi fatigue” — an anti-Netanyahu rally drew 40,000 protesters to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv last weekend — Netanyahu still comes out on top in terms of who the public views as prime minister material.

With Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu announcing he would not join a Herzog government and Arieh Der’i of Shas backing Netanyahu, the prime minister should not be counted out.

A number of political personalities have emerged as potential successors to Netanyahu. Herzog is at the forefront of those who made gains in the court of public opinion.

“Herzog is someone who has shown himself to be moderate, cool-headed,” Ziv said of the son of Israel’s sixth president. “He’s been criticized for being a nerd. He has a high pitched voice that doesn’t sit well with Israelis who are used to a more authoritative [figure], but he is intelligent and hardworking.”

Moshe Kahlon, running on the Kulanu list, has been dubbed a “kingmaker” by Sachs. Kahlon’s party is crucial for any proposed government to cross the 60-seat threshold needed to control the Knesset. After the election, President Reuven Rivlin will review each party’s performance at the polls and decide, based in part of recommendations by new Knesset members, who to ask to become prime minister.

“Should [Lieberman] recommend Netanyahu to President Rivlin, the game is likely over, assuming Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox do not change their minds,” Sachs wrote in a recent blog post. “Should Kahlon choose to side with Herzog … or the Zionist Union outperform the polls dramatically, a Herzog coalition would be possible as well.”

It is possible that Kahlon will recommend no one, or recommend himself, to Rivlin.

Left-wing Meretz leader Zehava Galon has served as the de facto opposition leader, vocally opposing Netanyahu and Likud policies on all fronts.

Despite the political jockeying, there are a huge number of Israelis who are undecided, said Plesner.

There’s a feeling, he said, of “Why do we have to bother two years later?”

Israelis typically have a high voter turnout. By Plesner’s estimation, until the late 1990s more than 70 percent of eligible voters participated each election cycle. But as elections have been called with more frequency, there has been less enthusiasm to participate and anger over the cost of elections.

One group that may turn out in higher numbers: Israeli Arabs, to vote for the United Arab list. Traditionally, they have stayed away from the polls, despite comprising 20 percent of the population.

Whereas in previous years Israelis living in America have returned to Israel to vote — only Israeli diplomats can cast ballots abroad — this year El Al did not advertise election airfare specials. n

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Melissa Apter is a reporter at WJW’s sister publication, Baltimore Jewish Times.

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