The surprises are already coming as Israeli politicians roll up their sleeves and get to work in the quest to win the upcoming March 17 elections.
The odds favor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a rightist coalition led by his Likud party to keep control of the government. But in Israel’s raucous, fragmented political system, nobody can rule out the unexpected. There is no guarantee that Netanyahu will hold on to his post.
In fact, the actions of Palestinians could end up proving pivotal in deciding the contest.
On Dec. 2, when he fired the only centrists in his coalition — including then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni — effectively, dissolving his government, the polls favored Netanyahu and Likud remaining in power. But already the possibility of change is becoming visible.
The first surprise came when a poll by Israel’s channel 10 concluded that an alliance between the opposition Labor party, Livni’s Hatnua party and the centrist Kadima could defeat Likud.
Whichever party or electoral alliance secures the most seats in the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, will get a chance to form a government. Keep in mind that victories tend to come by very small margins. The poll showed Likud winning 20 seats, compared to Labor/Hatnua/Kadima’s 22.
The top seat-winner has a chance to negotiate a coalition deal in search of a majority of at least 61 seats. It’s no simple matter.
Shortly after the Channel 10 poll, the announcement came: Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, head of the Labor party, reached a deal with Livni to run on a joint list as the “Zionist center.” If they win, the two would share the top office. Herzog, known as “Buji” (most Israeli politicians have nicknames) would serve as prime minister during the first two years and Livni would take the top job during the second half of the term, assuming the term lasts a full four years. (The current cycle ended after just two years.)
Herzog and Livni say Netanyahu is taking the country down the wrong path. They are profoundly worried about the disastrous relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, and about the lack of progress in talks with Palestinians. If they win, they vow to make a strong push for a peace deal and repair Israel’s relations with the United States and Europe.
A majority of Israelis still support the two-state solution, but there’s another poll that will give them pause.
A survey by the Palestinian Center for Diplomacy and Polls showed an incredible 80 percent of Palestinians support the recent wave of terror attacks in Israel, which have included ramming cars into pedestrians, stabbing and shooting men praying in a synagogue and other atrocities.
The same Palestinian poll also revealed that most Palestinians support putting Hamas — the group committed to Israel’s destruction — in charge of the Palestinian Authority.
Those results are very bad news for Israeli peace activists, including Livni and Herzog.
The paramount worry among Israelis is security. When it comes to the issue of peace with Palestinians, Herzog and Livni will make the case, as they have over the years, that security will come if there is peace.
The problem for Herzog/Livni is that peace with Palestinians is only part of the security equation. Israelis of all political persuasions worry about Iran’s nuclear intentions and its support for Hamas. There are countless sources of concern. There is Hezbollah in Syria, with its rockets capable of hitting practically all of Israel, and there is the Islamic State presence near the Syria border.
But Israelis are also worried about the tense ties with the U.S. government, Israel’s most important ally. If Herzog and Livni can convince voters that they will strengthen ties with Washington, thus making Israel more secure, and negotiate only an agreement that created very strong security arrangements, they may have a chance.
Netanyahu, whose approval stands at just 38 percent, has worried more about a threat from politicians who are more hawkish than he is, rivals on the right, than those on the left. He will want to fortify his right flank, leaving the center and the left open to the opposition.
Netanyahu became prime minister for the first time in 1996 in a stunning surprise victory over Labor’s Shimon Peres. He was helped by a wave of terrorist attacks in restaurants, shopping centers and city buses.
The win showed that terrorism hurts peace activists. But it also reminded everyone that in Israeli elections, no outcome is guaranteed.