For two weeks running, opinion polls have placed Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-of-center Likud second in the forthcoming general election on March 17, with 21 Knesset seats to the left-of-center Zionist Camp’s 24-25.
This is a slim though consistent lead for the opposition party.
The numbers say that neither top party leader can hope to command more than a one-fifth segment of the 120-seat parliament, and neither, whether the incumbent Netanyahu or his challenger Yitzhak Herzog, will be able to form a government without inviting several small factions as coalition partners.
In these circumstances, the candidate able to whip together a majority government would prevail. It could be Herzog who is promised left-wing support, or Netanyahu who has pledges from the right-wing camp. That leaves the centrist and religious parties waiting to be wooed to fill out the numbers.
Alternatively, Netanyahu and Herzog could do a deal to form unity government and rotate the premiership between them.
For now, however, DEBKA Weekly’s political sources describe a mood of despondency has descended on Netanyahu’s close circle. Interior Minister Gilead Erdan and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinetz are quoted as saying that Likud’s defeat is a foregone conclusion. Even Likud adherents canvassed five days before balloting confess they may not vote for their favorite party because “Bibi” has been prime minister long enough and it is time for him to go.
The motto “Just Not Bibi” dreamed up by the opposition has worked as the catalyst of a trend.
Obama’s White House looks forward to new Israeli premier
An election that pushes Netanyahu’s Likud out of office, after 16 years, and installs the Zionist Camp’s Herzog, would be a major upset – and not just for Israeli politics.
The falling-out between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu and its impact on Middle East events has filled endless news and op-ed columns. Already, the president’s aides are setting in motion plans to invite Yitzhak Herzog, who is widely tabbed in Washington as next Israeli premier, to the White House, as soon as he has assembled a cabinet – late May or early June.
And already, the White House and Zionist Camp’s headquarters are working happily on the draft of a joint communiqué to commemorate this first encounter and put on record Israel’s endorsement of the Obama line on nuclear diplomacy with Iran and the Palestinian issue.
The communiqué would tactfully leave out references to Iran’s march of influence through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. All in all, it would reflect as little reality as Obama’s comments after his visit to Riyadh last month.
For by now, it is obvious that the US president has no intention of revising his approach to Iran, whether on the nuclear question, or their strategic partnership in the Gulf, Syria, Iraq and the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Opting for ties with Obama means dropping allies in Cairo, Riyadh
But will Herzog, who is not known exactly for his rugged assertiveness, just glory in this epic burying of the hatchet between Jerusalem and Washington, or use closed-door parley with the president for a stab at repairing some of the damage inflicted on Israel’s interests.
This question is of vital importance to Israel’s standing in the region. Because if Herzog goes through with his pledge to go back to full cooperation with the US administration, Israel will find itself bereft of the special intelligence and military ties Netanyahu secretly wove with Egyptian President Abdel-Fatteh El-Sisi and the royal court in Riyadh.
This choice may be the new prime minister’s first weighty policy decision.
The Zionist Camp leader also promised to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in an effort to revive the peace track.
To this end, Herzog would have to revoke the steps taken by the Netanyahu government, including the cutoff of tax returns, in retaliation for Abbas’ unilateral action in joining international bodies, including filing indictments against Israel at the world war crimes court in The Hague.
The Palestinian leader will certainly not miss the opportunity to exact more Israeli concessions as the price for a meeting with the new Israeli prime minister.
Abu Mazen gains a finger in Israel’s parliament
In this regard, the new Knesset faces another historic change.
For the first time, Israeli Arab parties are making a successful run with a united list which could net 13-14 seats and become the third or fourth largest party in Israel’s parliament. Herzog would be able to count on this faction siding with his policies against the potential right-wing opposition.
But this is where things could get complicated. The Palestinian leader holds unchallenged sway over the united Arab party and he would be able to bring his influence to bear on Israel’s parliamentary business, as well as on the already tangled relations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
A Likud victory or a unity government could hold these manipulations in check.