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On Israel's left, Herzog is Livni's real electoral challenge

The ''anyone but Bibi'' trend sweeping Israeli politics lately might harm the Likud Party and help Labor and opposition leader Isaac Herzog, but according to polls it does not reduce the overall size of the right-wing camp.
Isaac Herzog (R), the newly elected head of Israel's left-of-centre Labour Party, speaks during a news conference after his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah December 1, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman (WEST BANK - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX15ZO7

The swift collapse in the percentage of respondents who supported Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as their top candidate for the premiership in the latest opinion polls (Dec. 8-9) is a formative event in the 2015 elections. This is the first time in recent years that Netanyahu, the undisputed king of opinion polls as the most appropriate person to direct the state, is losing this advantage.

Ostensibly, this would seem to be wonderful news for the center-left bloc whose representative, Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog, is closing the gap vis-a-vis Netanyahu in the polls. According to a survey taken by Israeli TV Channel 10 News that was released on Dec. 9, support for Netanyahu as premier drops to only 23%, while Herzog leaps to 22%. This is a dramatic, close race and even though the duel is taking place only in the opinion polls, it has a tremendous effect on public opinion. On the conscious level, these results break Netanyahu's hegemony and, more so, in favor of a left-wing leader.

Herzog has metamorphosed from a rather flavorless politician to a man who may be the State of Israel’s next prime minister. This is indeed the outcome of the anti-Bibi [Netanyahu] trend that has taken over Israeli politics, but it is also due to the speedy unification agreement between Herzog and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Israelis are greatly affected by political unions of this type that radiate hope-generating momentum and renewal. In the current case, this unity deal includes also a novelty: a rotation agreement between Herzog and Livni for the role of prime minister. But when we analyze the result of Channel 10’s survey with regard to segmentation of the seats between the parties and between the blocs, a less inspiring, even quite problematic picture emerges for the center-left bloc. Not only does the Herzog-Livni alliance not serve to retain the bloc’s political strength, it even generates the projected loss of 10 seats.

While in the current dissolving Knesset, the center-left bloc numbered 48 seats (Yesh Atid 19, Labor 15, Hatnua 6, Meretz 6 and Kadima 2); the Channel 10 poll points to an anticipated decrease in the number of seats. The anticipated union of Labor, Hatnua (headed by Livni) and Kadima (headed by former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz) garners 22 seats. Meanwhile, Yesh Atid plummets to 10 seats and Meretz remains with six. Simple arithmetic shows us that the joint center-left front in this poll equals only 38 seats. In other words: Not only is there no new electorate voting for the bloc, but there is a worrisome trickle of votes to former Likud Minister Moshe Kahlon’s party and to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu; Liberman has been jockeying for a centrist political position.

The center-left bloc resembles a closed economy, in which one party can only grow at the expense of another. For example: The reason that Meretz is suffering a decline, although another poll held in April 2014 indicated it could win 10 seats, is because the Herzog-Livni party is stealing its voters. This dynamic evokes memories of the 2009 elections in which Kadima, headed by Livni, garnered 28 seats, thus constituting the largest party. An analysis of the results showed that Livni stole voters from Meretz, almost finishing off Meretz, which disintegrated into three seats. It also harmed the Labor Party headed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, which dropped to approximately 13 seats.

In the last elections in 2013, Yair Lapid succeeded in bringing over four or five seats from the right into the center-left bloc. This was because he winked at the right-wing electorate and also toned down his diplomatic viewpoints. This is the reason that the bloc grew, almost gaining parity with the right-wing bloc.

In the coming elections on March 17, we are likely to discover that the center parties are actually right-wing-oriented parties: Kahlon and Liberman will almost certainly be part of the next government, no matter who heads it. Perhaps one of them will even head the government.

This is not good news for the center-left bloc that benefits from the anti-Bibi effect. But when we analyze the situation in depth, we see that this bloc is shrinking. The center-left has not succeeded in creating a leading diplomatic or economic agenda.

Most of the Israeli public leans to the center-right. In other words, they either don’t believe in the two-state solution or are skeptical about it. Therefore, after the “Anyone but Bibi” buzz dies down, the gloomy reality will reveal itself again to the center-left bloc leaders. They are likely to find themselves foot soldiers in Liberman’s government, hoping that he will take action to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. There is good reason that Liberman and Kahlon do not guarantee that they will not be part of a Netanyahu-led government. They are politically astute enough to leave this option open, thus avoiding inflicting political damage on themselves among the right-wing public (if they appear as conspiring to topple a prime minister from the right, joining forces with the left). This is a delicate game, which does not bode well for the center-left bloc to gain control of the government.

To the above mentioned, one must add the struggles within the bloc itself, which battles more or less over the very same electorate. It is an electorate that shifts from party to party in every election campaign, but is unable to significantly expand at an ongoing, constant rate. Only recently have we been witness to the covert struggle between Lapid and Herzog over the heart of Livni, who on Dec. 10 chose the Labor Party as her new home. In the background, Lapid is unwilling to automatically accept Herzog as the bloc’s candidate for the premiership; he, Lapid, demands this slot for himself.

In the last 22 years, the left succeeded in gaining control of the government only twice: in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin was elected prime minister and the Labor Party garnered 44 seats; and seven years later, when Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu in personal elections.

It is no coincidence that in these two instances, the center-left bloc was headed by much-esteemed former chiefs of staff. The combination of a clear-cut, security-oriented agenda with a diplomatic perception located in the center-left — one which first and foremost emanates responsibility, is what channeled right-wing votes to late Prime Minister Rabin and, to a certain extent, also helped Barak attract votes from the center. Thus, this is the great challenge of Herzog and Livni and, to a certain extent, that of former Finance Minister Lapid.

The placement of Mofaz (a former Likud member of Middle Eastern origin) on a high spot on the Labor-Livni list, together with the recruitment of other security-labeled public figures, could have made all the difference. The current leadership of this joint list might perhaps succeed in winning over the “White Tribe,” but will find it very difficult to enlarge the center-left bloc by adding voters from the right. Therefore, it is quite uncertain whether it will be strong enough to lead the next government.

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