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With his return, gone are the typical hawkish declarations regarding the Palestinians these recent years. Instead, Deri is focusing on social issues, with a populist bent. In his first television interview after returning to his leadership role, Deri spoke not at all about security issues, emphasizing instead that “the State of Israel is divided into two camps: those who have and those who do not have. We in Shas will represent those who do not have.” At the same time, Deri’s adviser Chaim Cohen blasted Likud-Beiteinu as the “white” party, vowing that Shas would focus on combating discrimination against Arabs and Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent. These statements demonstrate that it is very possible that Shas could join a coalition led by a center left party.
Pressure is also mounting on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former foreign minister Livni to join the political race. This would have a major but unpredictable impact on the elections. Despite Livni’s loss and the accusations of corruption that taint Olmert’s image, both politicians have significant followings because of their extensive government experience, and in many ways they are seen as more viable candidates for the prime ministership than the other center-left leaders — former journalists Shelly Yachimovich of Labor and Yair Lapid of the new Yesh Atid party.
Yet even if Yachimovich decided to run separately from Olmert or Livni, she would still attract a large following. Both Channel 2 and Channel 10 polls predict Labor doubling in strength, garnering at least 23 mandates. Like Deri, Yachimovich has long been a champion of the poor and increasingly suffering middle class. With a party that does not include Olmert or Livni, she could attract individuals who are more hawkish on security issues but nevertheless are greatly concerned by the rising cost of living in Israel. At the same time, Olmert or Livni could draw in voters who are interested in solving the Palestinian conflict or who are looking for a candidate with more security-related experience.
The last major wildcard is the 11-member bloc of Arab parties, which includes the communist Hadash party, the nationalist Balad party and the Islamist United Arab List. Traditionally, these Arab parties have not entered a coalition; mainstream Zionist parties seem hesitant to invite them, and their own leaders seem indifferent about compromising their positions enough to gain entry. But under the right leadership, and with sufficient investment in the Arab sectors, a center-left coalition could entice them to join such a government. At the very least, these parties may support a minority coalition from the outside, as occurred during the Rabin government in the early 1990s.
As unconventional as it sounds, the best path for the center left may well be to stay divided, just as its foes were in 2009. That way, each party can play to core constituencies, chip away disillusioned Likud voters and hope that differences can be settled after the election — assuming that they can deny Netanyahu the right-wing majority required for political survival.
Geoffrey Levin is a political science PhD student at Johns Hopkins University and an editor of The Jerusalem Review. Aaron Magid is a staff writer for the Jerusalem Review who has written articles on international politics for The Forward and The Jerusalem Post.