The last two weeks have been rather worrying for supporters of Israel’s center-left. The steady lead that the Zionist Union had over Likud has now evaporated, replaced by a virtual tie and, in some polls, even a Likud lead.
If bad polling wasn’t enough, two potential Herzog-Livni coalition partners, Avigdor Lieberman and Aryeh Deri, pledged not to enter into a “leftist” coalition. Without them, creating an alternative coalition is almost impossible, even with the most optimistic polls. While this may be politics that will change the minute after the election results arrive, it remains true that the Likud’s chances of forming a government are significantly better than the Zionist Union’s.
However, my greatest fear is not Lieberman and Deri saying no. If Herzog is given the first chance to form a coalition, I suspect they will be more compromising. In my view, the greatest obstacle to the effort to oust Benjamin Netanyahu was and remains Moshe Kahlon’s presence in the race.
The common saying that Likud does best when foreign policy dominates the discussion and that Labor benefits from an economic campaign is largely true. It is also true that neither party can campaign on only one issue: it’s arguable that both Netanyahu and Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich suffered in 2013 for failing to address their weak spots–––all to Yesh Atid’s benefit. That Netanyahu’s poll numbers have increased against the backdrop of his disastrous handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship is no accident. Most Israelis still believe the center-left can’t handle security, even amidst a diplomatic meltdown such as this.
This is where Kahlon comes in, to Herzog’s detriment: Kahlon takes away the need for an economic campaign altogether. In an otherwise alarmist column for Ha’aretz, Roger Alpher made a sarcastic but insightful point about the thinking of the strategic Israeli voter: “Socioeconomics? It’s okay, Kahlon will be finance minister.” It’s not that Israeli voters are satisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the economy, but if they can get the best of both worlds, that’s what they will choose. At this moment, so-called “soft right” voters–––a group key to any party seeking the premiership––– have no reason not to vote for the Likud.
In the end, Herzog will unlikely be able to switch the topic of conversation. With Netanyahu’s address to Congress scheduled for March 3rd, exactly two weeks before polls open, the discussion heading into election day will be the fallout from the speech. In addition, the closer the U.S. comes to striking a deal with Iran, the more Netanyahu’s numbers will rise. In order for Herzog and Livni to deliver the upset many of us want, they will have to be more candid and creative on security issues, and convince Israelis that Netanyahu’s settlement policies and confrontational posture toward the President of the United States bodes ill for Israel’s long-term interests.
I wish them the best of luck.