JERUSALEM – Like a lost desert traveler trapped between mirages and pools of quicksand, Israel moves forward fearfully towards its third election in one year, unsure where to step or what to expect in its own Age of Uncertainty.
Most recent polls show, for the first time, that the right-center Likud has caught or even passed the left-center Blue-White Party, perhaps even giving the Right bloc parties a small edge over the left-center bloc, but it still appears likely there will be no clear winner in the March 2 voting.
So Israelis are facing many open questions, unsure what the coming months will be like:
• Will rising rocket fire and bombs in the south lead to a full-scale war with the terrorists in Gaza, damaging or delaying the election or influencing the coalition process after the election?
• Will the trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu begin on schedule on March 17 , or will it be postponed for many months as Netanyahu again gets a chance to form a coalition without having to make court appearances?
• Will the Supreme Court intervene and rule that Netanyahu, under indictment for corruption charges, cannot be entrusted with forming a government, even though the law states that a prime minister may serve until his case is decided by a final verdict?
Meanwhile there are other open questions.
“None of the polls can tell you what the voter turn-out will be, and that’s the biggest question,” asserted Amit Segal, political commentator for Israel Television’s Channel 12.
“If the right gets another 100,000 votes – let’s say a five percent jump in turnout – they can form a government,” Segal said. Traditionally, he said, Likud voters turned out ten percent less than voters on the left.
Israeli elections are usually tense and exciting, but until recently that has definitely not been the case. One reason perhaps is that most voters have been expecting that this round of elections would be as equally inconclusive as the first two rounds, forcing an unprecedented fourth round.
Until the last week, there seemed to be a sense of “combat fatigue” – both on the left and right – after the two previous inconclusive elections. There were few public appearances by most of the politicians of Likud and Blue-White, except for Netanyahu who has stepped up his public appearances beyond anything in his career.
As one walks the streets of the big cities or travels by car, there seem to be relatively few campaign posters on houses or cars – something very unusual in an Israeli election campaign.
Underneath the relatively soporific campaign, Likud has decided to change tactics and really push for larger turnout as a basic part of its strategy.
“If the Likud gets its voter participation up a few points, it is a game changer,” added TV commentator Segal.
“Our problem is clear,” said Likud Minister Zeev Elkin. “The voters of the left have a greater participation rate than voters of the right.”
However, that picture could change in this third round of voting because of several factors:
• Israel’s prosecution has announced an investigation into “Ha Meimad Ha-Hamishi” (The Fifth Dimension) a company formerly headed by Benny Gantz, the prime ministerial candidate of Blue-White, casting him in a bad light and undermining Blue-White’s anti-corruption stance against Likud;
• The tension around Gaza and the possibility of war – together with talk about the Trump Peace Plan – has focused attention on Netanyahu’s strengths as a leader rather than his weak points as a defendant facing charges;
• Several pollsters have detected that the “enthusiasm factor” has risen among rightist voters while declining among Blue-White voters, who seem to realize that their party’s appeal may have peaked, and yet, have not been even close to forming a coalition.
“For every half percent increase in voter turnout (for the Likud) there would be an increase of one mandate (one seat in the Knesset),” asserted Tzuriel Sharon, an analyst at Direct Polling, an opinion survey organization.
Left unsaid in the media reporting here is that some voters may have realized that the media analysis has been largely skewed in favor of the left when it strongly suggested that Benny Gantz and Blue-White had a real chance to form a coalition with 56 or more seats, when, in fact, the Jewish parties on the left reached a peak of 45-46 seats of 120 Knesset seats, making them dependent on the support of the Arab bloc.
In order to get to a 61-seat majority needed for a coalition, Gantz would have had to bring both the anti-Zionist Arab parties into his government along with Avigdor Lieberman’s right-oriented Yisrael Beiteinu – something that just was not going to happen.
Another equally weird scenario floated by the largely left-oriented broadcast media here is that Gantz would somehow be able to get one of Likud’s natural allies – the ultra-Orthodox Haredim parties or the Modern Orthodox-oriented Yemina Party to defect to Gantz in order to form a Left-Center coalition.
So what’s likely?
If current survey trends continue – and that is not certain – Likud could eke out a 35-33 or so victory over Blue-White in the battle of the two big parties, giving Likud a psychological edge. Likud would also lead a larger bloc than Blue-White, perhaps as many as 58 or even 59, but Likud would probably not be able to form a majority coalition unless Avigdor Lieberman swallows his hatred of Netanayahu and his supposed distaste for Haredim.
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Michael Widlanski is a Jerusalem-based journalist.