While fed up with the same old faces after six years of governments headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, and frustrated by the soaring cost of living, the average Israeli voter on March 17 may end up with a straight choice between alluring promises of a better life or settling for steady, experienced hands for keeping the country safe.
The new partnership struck this week between Labor leader Yithzak Herzog and Hatnuah led by former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, tried to catch the two birds in their first public appearance. Addressing the communities abutting the Gaza Strip, they promised to give them the security of which they accused Netanyahu of depriving them.
Haim Yellin, Head of the Eshkol District regional council, who has not so far attached himself to any party, retorted dismissively: “It is up to our children to fight terror. The politicians should fight our battles in the diplomatic arena.”
Yellin is remembered from the IDF’s summer campaign in Gaza against Hamas by his cutting criticism of the prime minister for not going far enough to end the Palestinian missile-cum-tunnel-cum-terror blight.
He may yet be one of the new faces to be picked by one of the lists.
The only other fresh face so far taking the stump is Moshe Kahlan, late of Likud, who this week established a new party called Kulanu (All of Us).
Kahlan gained overnight popularity as Netanyahu’s Communications minister by forcing cell phone distributors to compete and lower prices. Even so, he starts out with some drawbacks:
He is still shopping for a military or security figure to bolster his list. In general, his support team is not impressive.
He traveled to Holland to study how its government was able to house elderly people and help them end their lives with dignity. But this would not solve the pressing problem of the lack of affordable housing for young families working to start their lives.
Finally, Moshe Kahlon keeps on smiling, whereas the issues he deals with are not terribly funny.
By and large, Netanyahu as head of Likud, appears to be achieving his declared goal of forcing the heavily factionalized political parties into major blocs with realistic prospects for gaining office, and doing away with the plethora of hopeless splinters which perennially condemn most governments to foreshortened terms.
To achieve this, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beitenu, led legislation to raise the threshold to 3.25 percent.
Livni by getting hitched with Herzog saved herself from falling at the threshold. But it is hard to see what Herzog gained, besides having to make room on their joint ticket for a pair of returning Labor old-timers, Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, who defected to Livni’s Hatnua when they ran out of steam.
Herzog’s strident pledge to form the next government has not gained much substance from this acquisition. Labour-Hatnua is not forecast by private party pollsters to attain more than third or fourth placing in the coming election.
The great white hope of the January 2013 ballot, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and his Future party, are proving to be a flash in the pan, plummeting in every opinion poll from 19 Knesset seats (out of 120) to a single digit figure.
After Livni jilted him to join Herzog – both were sacked by Netanyahu – no other party was willing to sign a surplus vote deal with Lapid.
His own prediction this week that the parties running for election in three months would fall into three major groupings – left-of center, center and right – fell short of the true division of strength.
Five blocs are in fact getting set for the race: left of center (Labor + Hatnuah and far-left Meretz); center of right (Kahlon and Lieberman and possibly Lapid); a much fragmented religious bloc; a right-wing grouping (Likud and Habayit Hayehudi) and an Arab front, hammered by the raised threshold into a single Arab entity which could rise from 10-11 seats to 13 or fifteen.
The right wing and religious camps are showing cracks under the pressure to form into large groupings. The ultra-religious Shas in particular is in trouble: the former interior minister Ellie Yishay is about to break away over irreconcilable differences with his successor Arye Der’i. Yishay is planning to set up a new religious party, possibly in association with Housing Minister Uri Ariel of the Bayit Yehudi, who is ready for a divorce from the party’s leader Economy, Commerce and Religious Affairs minister Naftali Bennett.
This new venture has every chance of grabbing half of the support from both their parent parties.
This ebb and flow around the main right-wing party Likud is also likely to send refugees seeking haven there and so enhancing Netanyahu’s prospects for another term as prime minister.
Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon this week complained that the local media were hostile and had adopted the slogan heard also in Washington: ABB (“Anyone but Bibi”).
But that is not the sum of his difficulties in the three months of electioneering still to go. Bibi faces three more tough hurdles:
1. Image fatigue. Netanyahu has been around too long and his weaknesses are too familiar to a majority of the electorate, which yearns for a fresh face, although, for lack of suitable optional figures with the right skills and experience, he still leads all the polls as the preferred national leader.
2. He has not yet come up with a campaign strategy, except for defensive responses to his rivals’ aspersions. The prime minister’s aides retorted to the charge that he has fallen short on security by pledging to fight the Islamic Army in Iraq and the Levant – ISIS.
That response was both beside the point and absurd. The Netanyahu government is not about to order the IDF to cross borders to strike ISIS bases on foreign soil in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria.
On the other hand, the strict secrecy that shrouds Israel’s covert military operations in support of anti-Assad rebels in Syria makes little sense and the leaks have started.
3. Unforeseen events at home or overseas could upend his campaign at a pivotal point. Members of Barack Obama’s administration have been quoted as determining to go all-out to bring Netanyahu down (as debkafile disclosed exclusively on Dec. 6). The White House may land some nasty surprises on the candidate’s head in mid-campaign.
The US president has not done too well in his former attempts to redesign the political anatomy in Middle East lands. An Israeli failure would not surprise anyone.