Jerusalem — As political parties here scramble for undecided voters ahead of Tuesday’s crucial election, polls suggest that both major parties could cobble together narrow coalition governments. But a national unity government remains a possibility if neither is able to form a strong coalition to its liking.
A Channel 2 poll published Monday put the opposition Zionist Union led by Yitzchak Herzog and Tzipi Livni four seats ahead of the governing Likud party, 25 to 21, the widest gap of any of the polls to date. A poll released Tuesday by the Knesset Channel put the Zionist Union’s lead at three seats. It also found that 47 percent of the electorate who are leaning towards voting for the Zionist Union are also considering voting for Yesh Atid, a centrist, secular-liberal party led by Yair Lapid that continues to move up in the polls and would now come in third with 14 seats.
The four Arab parties that are running on a joint list would receive 13 votes, but might amass more depending on turnout in the Arab community.
With roughly 20 percent of the Israeli electorate still undecided, “we can’t rely on polls,” acknowledged Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political scientist.
The split in the electorate, and a measure of that uncertainty, was evident this week in interviews on the streets of Jerusalem.
“I’m left-wing and it’s clear we need a change,” said Ram Mizrachi Spinoza, a 29-year-old actor, cradling an ice tea on a balmy day. “Every other year there’s a war, the economy sucks, the education system sucks. People can’t afford to buy apartments.”
Spinoza especially bemoaned the inequality between the Arab and Jewish sectors.
“The Arab citizens of Israel don’t receive the same services. Some have sewage running down the street. There is way too much racism in this country.”
Yehuda Tangi, who will be voting for the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas Party, agreed that racism is rampant, but not against Arabs.
“To me, Ashkenazim are the real racists,” said Tangi, 53, as he hung out with other unemployed friends at a store that sells cigarettes and lottery tickets in a working-class neighborhood.
Tangi’s friend Yossi Ephraim, 58, said most Israeli politicians don’t care about the millions of people who are struggling financially.
“Do you know how much Bituach Leumi [Social Security] pays someone who is unemployed or disabled — about 1,600 shekels [$400 per month],” he said. “A person can buy maybe bread and milk on that but certainly can’t pay the rent.”
In a nearby playground, Yonatan, a musician and father of four who declined to give his last name, said “social justice” and “leadership” are his top priorities and that he still hasn’t decided whom to vote for.
“I want to elect someone with a vision, someone who has a long-term plan of how to improve Israel educationally and socially,” he said. “Unfortunately I don’t see either candidate fitting that description. ”
Holding one of his 8-month-old twins as the other crawled around the playground, Yonatan said: “Security is important, but I feel more money needs to be invested in education and less in security.”
In contrast, Dror Sami, a secular 30-something holding a business meeting in a cafe, said, “Security is the most important issue. I believe in the Likud [party of Benjamin Netanyahu]. I’m a businessman and know that the Likud has done a lot of good things for the economy, from lowering unemployment [to] bringing down the cost of groceries.”
Sarah Mizrachi was less certain.
“I used to vote for the Likud,” said the retired 75-year-old seamstress as she went grocery shopping. “It’s hard to pay our bills, and after years with Likud in power I still don’t see the security Bibi keeps talking about. Maybe it’s time for some fresh blood.”
While many pundits believe Herzog could nose out Netanyahu in the vote department, it is the party leader who first forms a coalition of 61 or more seats who will be the next prime minister. If neither leader can cobble together a viable coalition, President Reuven Rivlin is empowered to declare a national unity government.
“The real question is who has the possibility to form a coalition,” Diskin said. “In 2009, Kadima edged out the Likud [28 to 27], but Likud ended up forming the government.”
Diskin said Kulanu, a new centrist party headed by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, could play a pivotal role in the formation of either a left- or right-wing government.
Kulanu, whose agenda is economic reform, could win up to nine seats, according to the latest Panels/Knesset Channel poll. Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren is on the Kulanu ticket.
Based on the most recent estimates, the right-wing parties plus the ultra-Orthodox parties combined may not have the requisite 61 seats.
“But if you add Kulanu they do have a majority, and I’m sure Kahlon leans more toward Likud than he does toward the Zionist Union,” Diskin said. “That means Kahlon, regardless of how many seats he gets, will have a lot of power in dictating the next coalition and his role in it.”
But Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political science professor at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, suggested that Israeli Arabs could be the kingmaker if Arab voters come out in force — something many observers said is a real possibility.
Wolfsfeld said that although the Arab bloc has said it would never join even a left-wing coalition, if enough Israeli Arabs vote for left-wing parties, they could keep Likud from forming a coalition government.
He said also that although he believes it would be difficult for Herzog and the center-left to amass 61 seats “unless there is a big surprise,” such as a big showing by Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.
Lapid, Wolfsfeld observed, is refusing to join a Netanyahu government that includes the ultra-Orthodox parties because the prime minister reportedly promised to scale back revisions to the draft law that limit military exemptions for the fervently Orthodox — changes Lapid championed.
When Netanyahu announced new elections last December after firing centrist ministers in his coalition government following intense political bickering, he is said to have believed he would easily win an unprecedented fourth term as prime minister.
But as the campaign heated up, opponents hunting for a scandal to hurt Netanyahu charged that his wife had pocketed money she received when returning recycled bottles the state had paid for in the family’s private residence. There were other similar allegations regarding the Netanyahu household that authorities blamed on the staff and not the prime minister, and polls showed the public more concerned about security concerns in the north.
For Netanyahu, security is his strong suit and that was his singular theme throughout the election campaign. Thus, when he had the chance last week to raise concerns to a joint session of Congress about the agreement the U.S. and other nations are negotiating with Iran to keep it from developing nuclear weapons, he took advantage of it.
But polls showed the speech failed to give the prime minister the bounce he expected. At the most, it stopped his party’s slide. In a move to harden his position even more, Netanyahu’s Likud party published a statement last Sunday saying that because of current conditions in the Middle East, the prime minister was no longer willing to make concessions or withdrawals from the West Bank. The statement said Netanyahu feared that “any evacuated territory would fall into the hands of Islamic extremism and terrorist organizations supported by Iran.”
But later in the day, Netanyahu’s office issued a clarification that appeared to walk back that assertion. And on Monday, a spokeswoman for the Obama administration said the U.S. expects the new Israeli government to continue to remain committed to a two-state solution to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
At a press briefing Tuesday, pollster Rafi Smith said two crosscurrents are making this election difficult to predict.
Although the public is becoming more right wing, he said, a lot of Israelis, including some right-wingers, are looking for a change in leadership.
“The main difference from the 2013 election is that [today] we’re asking ‘Who will be the next prime minister?’ Two years ago, it was ‘Who will join Netanyahu in the coalition?’ ”
If Herzog manages to get three or four more seats than Netanyahu, Smith said, “He could have a chance to form the government.”
Wolfsfeld said security and the economy are once again the two biggest campaign issues.
While Likud is running on a security platform and Herzog is stressing social issues, that hasn’t stopped Herzog from talking tough on Iran, which he, like Netanyahu, considers an existential threat.
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.