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I Went to Israel To Ask Voters What They’re Really Feeling. They’re Confused.

Shimon Maman is the benign monarch of the Kingdom of Halva, a sesame-candy connoisseurs’ landmark in the heart of the fragrant and hectic Machne Yehuda open-air market in Jerusalem. Machne Yehuda has been known for decades as a stronghold of support for the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing ruling party — and Maman, 56, is one the market’s star personalities.

This year he’s not voting, he told me. “I’ve always voted for the Likud, but I’m giving up,” Maman declared, loud enough for merchants and shoppers in neighboring stalls to hear. “The politicians are all liars.”

In an hour’s stroll around the market, talking to one stall-keeper after another, I found only one who intends to vote Likud on March 17. The rest are either not voting, undecided or voting for minor parties.

This air of deep uncertainty, almost desperation, permeates Israel’s parliamentary election campaign this year.

There’s a feeling on all sides that this year, as clichéd as it sounds, the stakes really couldn’t be higher. On the left it’s a sense that this could be Israel’s last chance to choose leaders who can separate from the West Bank and save the Jewish state from becoming a binational state, if it’s not too late already. On the right it’s a nervousness that this might be the year the left wins and carries out its long-standing threat to carve up the Land of Israel. Among some of the smaller parties, there’s a growing fear as election day approaches that electoral reforms they’ve managed to enact in the name of clean government might be about to boomerang and wipe them off the electoral map.

This reigning sense of deadlock and dwindling alternatives is also reflected in the polling and the complicated electoral math that goes into forming a ruling coalition in Israel’s parliamentary system. Though it’s an election process often ridiculed for preventing radical change, in this case the stalled polls and inter-party politics seem an apt reflection of the Israeli psyche, caught between a status quo that isn’t tolerable and no clear idea of what should replace it.

What Are Israeli Voters Really Feeling? from Jewish Daily Forward on Vimeo.

If Netanyahu and the Likud are in trouble in Machne Yehuda market, they’re in trouble pretty much all across Israel. And in fact, Likud party poll analysts are now reported to be seriously worried about the trend lines in public opinion. The Likud’s trends are pointing down.

When Netanyahu fired his liberal ministers December 2 and called new elections, it seemed all but certain that he’d win re-election in a cakewalk. Polls showed him taking 24 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Not very impressive, but way ahead of everyone else, which presumably is what counts. In second place was an allied party just to his right, Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home, which was polling 16 seats. The main opposition, Yitzhak Herzog’s Labor Party, was a distant third, with 13 seats.

Eight days later, though, Herzog turned the race on its head by announcing a joint ticket with Tzipi Livni, the onetime Likudnik who had just been fired as Netanyahu’s justice minister and lead peace negotiator. Suddenly polls showed the remodeled Labor tied with Netanyahu or even slightly ahead. The two rivals, Netanyahu and Herzog, have been running neck and neck ever since.

My reporting in Israel took place before Netanyahu’s controversial speech imploring the U.S. Congress to reject the Obama administration’s possible deal to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And since the speech was essentially a campaign ad, it may move the needle on Netanyahu’s behalf, but as of press time, there were no polls available to tell us.

On the face of it, though, the running, three-month-long deadlock is very bad news for the prime minister. Likud analysts say that in most election years the party typically ends up scoring between 10% and 30% lower on election day than its poll numbers indicated in the final weeks of the campaign. Given the dead heat in early March, the analysts were glumly predicting that the party would end up with 18 seats in the new Knesset, far behind Herzog.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Netanyahu is about to lose his job. To become prime minister, a candidate has to win the support of at least half the members of the 120-member Knesset, or 61. (Leaders have always insisted on getting a solid majority of 67 more, so their government’s survival isn’t dependent on the whims of a single troublemaker.) Netanyahu has a much better chance of assembling a coalition than Herzog, even if his own Likud caucus is smaller.

Since no party has ever won an outright majority of the Knesset, every Israeli prime minister has had to form a coalition with smaller parties. Thus a final result of 24 seats for Herzog and 18 for Netanyahu doesn’t make Herzog Israel’s leader. The final choice belongs not to the voters but to the heads of the small parties emerging from the election, a handful of people with names like Bennett, Arye Deri and Yair Lapid.

And here Herzog is at a disadvantage.

The reason for Herzog’s disadvantage is complicated. Both Likud and Labor can count on the support of a couple of smaller parties that share their general outlook. The settler-backed Jewish Home sides with the Likud, for example, and the left-wing Meretz backs Labor. In real terms, therefore, both contenders will enter the intense horse-trading phase with about 45 lawmakers backing them.

To get to the magic 61, they’ll have to woo the members of four swing parties in the center that can go either way. These include the Yisrael Beiteinu party, based among Russian immigrants and led by the blustery right-wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. They also include the two ultra-Orthodox Haredi parties, the Sephardic Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism. The fourth in the group is a new party formed this year by a Likud defector, Moshe Kahlon, whose populist economic views make him popular with working-class Sephardic voters.

Conventional wisdom has it that the four swing parties — Lieberman’s, Kahlon’s and the two Haredi parties — are beyond reach for Herzog because they all lean right on social issues.

Tribal loyalties play a role, too: Sephardic Israelis hold a grudge against the Labor Party that goes back to their families’ treatment on arrival in Israel in the 1950s. Russian immigrants arrived in Israel with a strong and quite understandable antipathy toward anything that calls itself left-wing. Herzog believes his skill at persuasion, honed during his years as a high-powered attorney and Labor Party inside man, can break down these old loyalties and win him a Knesset majority.

It’s dangerous to underestimate Herzog. Many have done so in the past, only to find him, like the proverbial tortoise, waiting for them at the finish line.

Admittedly he’s an easy target: Beyond his boyish looks and wispy voice, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His grandfather, also named Yitzhak Herzog, was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine and Israel from 1936 to 1959. His father, Chaim Herzog, was chief of military intelligence, ambassador to the United Nations and president of Israel. His uncle Abba Eban was, well, Abba Eban.

Herzog himself seemed for years to be following dutifully in his father’s shadow — military intelligence, where he rose to major; partnership in the Tel Aviv law firm his father founded; then entering Labor Party politics as Ehud Barak’s secretary of the Cabinet, which is often regarded as a legacy apprenticeship for the well connected.

Once he was elected to the Knesset in 2003, though, he began defying the critics. He took on two of the Cabinet’s most challenging and hands-on ministries, minister of housing in Ariel Sharon’s unity government and minister of welfare in Netanyahu’s first unity government, and received high marks for a dogged performance.

In 2011 he led the rebellion of the Labor Party lawmakers who broke with Barak and left Netanyahu’s coalition to join the opposition. In 2013 he took over a Labor Party that had collapsed in two decades to eight seats in 2011 from 44 seats in 1992, and rebuilt it to the point where it now stands to recapture national leadership.

At the same time, his acknowledged achievements as an inside, behind-the-scenes operator haven’t stilled the questions about whether his appearance and image won’t hobble him with the voting public in an age dominated by the television camera. In the end, that will depend on whether he succeeds in cobbling together a majority coalition from the strong personalities he’ll be facing March 18. If he wins the office, the other questions will become irrelevant.

That in turn will depend on whether he can bridge the impossible gaps among the parties he needs to seat around a single table. The biggest of these gaps is the feud between the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party and Yair Lapid’s middle-class Yesh Atid.

Shas leader Deri has laid down the marker in that feud. He says he won’t sit with Lapid unless the government rescinds Lapid’s signature achievement of the past two years, the shared-burden legislation requiring that Haredi men serve in the army and join the workforce. It’s hard to imagine Lapid agreeing to that.

Lapid raised the stakes in early February by announcing plans to introduce a bill in the next Knesset that would impose a lifetime ban on felons joining the Knesset or the Cabinet. The current sanction is a seven-year cooling-off period. Lapid says the increase to a lifetime ban is needed to end the recent wave of scandals that has ensnared numerous Cabinet ministers, a former prime minister and even a sitting president.

But Deri, who did two years for bribery, beginning in 2000, has been taking Lapid’s bill as a personal attack on himself and as the latest evidence of anti-Sephardic bias among Tel Aviv’s Ashkenazi yuppies.

I asked Yaakov Peri, a former Shin Bet chief and one of Lapid’s closest allies, whether his party is really prepared to reject a compromise that could open the way to reviving the peace process at the price of rolling back its Haredi integration measures. Peri has done more than just about any Israeli in the past decade to keep the peace wagon rolling forward, however slowly. It was Peri who, as science minister in the last government and a nonvoting member of the security Cabinet, raised a practical idea for restarting peace talks and put it on the national agenda last summer.

Peri’s idea was to have the Americans and Saudis and perhaps Egypt convene a regional conference to plan the reconstruction of Gaza, with the moderate Sunni states, Europe and Israel on board. The conference would then go on to sponsor Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, based on the Arab Peace Initiative. That’s the plan proposed by Saudi Arabia and adopted unanimously by the League of Arab States in 2002, and it would offer Israel full recognition and a declared end to the Arab-Israel conflict in return for Palestinian sovereignty along modified pre-1967 lines and a negotiated deal on the refugees.

Peri took his idea to Lapid, who raised it with Netanyahu in August. The prime minister expressed interest, and even made a statement about the war having opened a “political horizon” in the region that could include the Saudis. But Netanyahu couldn’t bring himself to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative. Egypt went on to convene its own Gaza reconstruction conference that didn’t even include Israel, much less Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Peri had spent countless hours after joining Yesh Atid in 2012, wearing down Lapid’s fixation on domestic affairs and driving home the urgency of an active peace process. For several years before that he’d been working with a group that included Yitzhak Rabin’s son, Yuval Rabin, to forge an Israeli response to the Arab Peace Initiative. He was a moving force behind the controversial, Oscar-nominated 2012 documentary “The Gatekeepers.” Much of his life since retiring from the Shin Bet in 1994 had been devoted to the cause of peace.

So my question was fairly blunt: Was he really prepared now to jettison all that hopeful effort for the sake of drafting yeshiva students?

His answer, in a word, was yes. Lapid had made Haredi integration a central plank in his platform. It was one of the most important achievements of the party’s 20 months in government. To give it up now would be a betrayal of their voters.

If Yesh Atid spends a few years in the opposition, it will come back stronger in the next elections. By then the Haredi integration process will be firmly established and no longer a bargaining chip. And perhaps by then the country will be ready to take the steps necessary for peace that it doesn’t seem ready to take now.

Besides, Peri said, the signs are pointing increasingly toward a government being formed this spring that’s neither Netanyahu-right nor Herzog-left, but rather a Netanyahu-Herzog unity government. Herzog has studiously refused to rule it out, infuriating his left flank. Lapid and Netanyahu both deny it’s on the cards, but in Israel and the Middle East, that’s usually a pretty good sign that it’s underway.

The most important reason for a unity government, it’s said, is that Netanyahu is afraid Israel’s international isolation will grow to intolerable levels if he forms a government composed entirely of right-wing parties. A Likud government of the right would likely have to include the newly formed, ultra-rightist Yahad party, which is about to bring a disciple of the late Meir Kahane into the Knesset. That could mean diplomatic Armageddon.

On a Monday morning in February, five weeks before election day, Likud lawmaker Ze’ev Elkin suggested that I meet him at Tichon Nisui, an experimental high school in downtown Jerusalem. I was eager to meet him because he’s the chairman of the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a rising star on the party’s right flank.

He thought that watching him in action would serve me better than a sit-down interview. Besides, I’d get a vivid demonstration of his pyrotechnics.

High schools have become one of Israel’s hottest campaign battlegrounds this year. Dozens of principals have invited candidates, singly or in groups, to come and address an assembly of juniors and seniors. The kids get a break from class; the teachers get a civics project neatly packaged, no major preparation needed, and the candidates get a captive audience of impressionable first-time voters.

I figured watching Elkin at Tichon Nisui would make an interesting show, to say the least. The school is known as a hotbed of teenage hipsters, leftists and grunge-heads. Sending a Likud pol in there is a bit like putting Barney Frank before a crowd of Wyoming ranchers. But Elkin was confident he could handle it.

He didn’t disappoint. He managed to be charming, patient and unflappable without watering down his militantly conservative message. The questions from the students were mostly hostile and occasionally punctuated by shouting. But he gave them a clear articulation of viewpoints that most of them don’t hear every day in the circles where they travel and the media they consume. And he did it in a way that got through. That’s why he’s a rising star.

Elkin opened with a brief autobiography: Born in the Soviet Union, learned Hebrew in secret. Came to Israel in 1990 at age 19, “with $15 in my pocket.” Settled in Gush Etzion, the veteran settlement bloc just south of Jerusalem. Completed a master’s and almost a doctorate in Jewish history at Hebrew University. Entered politics, first as a legislative aide and then, in 2006, as an elected lawmaker. After the biography, he asked for questions, and the kids pounced.

The first question was about the controversial Nationality Law that Elkin drafted, which is seen widely as giving constitutional precedence to the state’s Jewish character over its democratic side. Elkin replied with a razor-sharp three-minute lesson in constitutional law. A second question concerned his opposition to Palestinian statehood. This was answered with a quick review of Middle East and British colonial history, with some international law thrown in.

Yet another question concerned the rights of West Bank Palestinians as the territory’s status remains in limbo year after year. Elkin started to give a flip answer, but changed gears when another student challenged him to present a solution. His response was to offer a brief sermon on the limits of power and the frailty of human wisdom.

“I’ve been in politics a long time,” Elkin said. “I’ve seen many situations where you decide on a quick solution and things just get worse. Very often in life you have to choose the lesser of two evils. Not every excellent solution makes things better.”

When he was done, a knot of students gathered around him to continue the arguments, passionately but good-naturedly. Others hung around in the hallway, trying to make sense of what they’d heard.

I asked a senior named Michal what she thought of Elkin. “I might be too fixed in my views,” she said. “If I’d heard him without knowing the things I know, I would have found him very convincing.”

The 20th Knesset hasn’t been elected yet, but it’s already taken up the most important law it will consider: the law of unintended consequences.

In March 2014, Avigdor Lieberman and his allies pushed a bill through the Knesset, over the furious objection of liberals and human rights activists, raising the minimum percentage of the popular vote that a party must win in order to make it into the Knesset. Up to then the threshold had been 2% of the vote, equivalent to two Knesset seats. Under Lieberman’s law the threshold is 3.25%, or four seats.

The new measure, known as the Governance Law, instituted a number of changes in Knesset procedure, but the one most talked about was the raising of the threshold. Lieberman said the purpose was to reduce the number of separate parties in the legislature and thereby reduce the chaos and obstructionism. Opponents said its main effect would be to inhibit representation of Israel’s Arab minority. And given Lieberman’s long record of undisguised hostility to Arab-Israeli political activity, they believed that was its purpose.

Traditionally the Knesset has had three Arab-based parties: one Palestinian nationalist, the second an Islamist and the third a Jewish-Arab communist party, Hadash, which drew most of its voter support from Arabs. In most elections, the three parties won between two and four seats each. The expectation was that under the new law, they would disappear, eliminating the main public voice of Israeli Arabs, unless they somehow managed to squeeze their wildly different ideologies into a single, merged organization.

In the end they did just that. The three parties bowed to reality and voted this past January at a meeting in Nazareth to create a single electoral slate. The merger process caused endless bickering among the parties’ leaders and activists over the platform and placement of the candidates. There were fears that the so-called Joint Arab List might lose Knesset share if voters and activists saw their views watered down in the name of a forced unity.

The result was the opposite. The merger was received with enthusiasm throughout the Israeli-Arab community. Polls showed the new entity going up to 12 seats in the March 17 election.

Moreover, the word on the street is that the decline in backbiting among the community’s representatives will boost their prestige and increase Arab turnout on election day. Turnout in recent elections has hovered above 50%. An increase this time will grow the number of Arab party lawmakers in the Knesset, giving new political clout to the organized Israeli-Arab community.

What’s more, if the next government is a Netanyahu-Herzog unity government, there’s a good chance that the leader of the official opposition will be the head of the Joint Arab List, adding clout: Haifa attorney Ayman Odeh, secretary general of Hadash. That would be a historic change, and certainly not one that Lieberman intended when he proposed his Governance Bill.

Israelis got their first chance to see Odeh in action when he participated in a televised candidates’ debate February 27, with all the party leaders together on the stage except Likud, Labor and Torah Judaism.

The debate consisted mainly of bickering and shouting. Lieberman repeatedly called Odeh a “fifth columnist” who didn’t belong in the Knesset. Odeh replied with humor, appeals for Jewish-Arab cooperation and with increased assistance for Arabs and Haredim, who are Israel’s poorest populations. A television review the next day in the entertainment section of Yediot Aharonot dubbed Odeh “Israel’s coolest new politician.”

Shortly after the merger vote, restaurateur Samir Dabit, 73, a longtime leader of the Hadash branch in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramleh, near Ben-Gurion Airport, gathered a large crowd of his sons and grandsons at his restaurant to talk to me. It was hard to follow the narratives as the men talked over and around each other.

But the excitement was palpable. “If 80% of the Arabs vote, we’ll get 15 seats,” Dabit said.

His son Jalil Dabit, 33, said the dominance of Hadash in the combined caucus will push the entire group in a more moderate direction. It will give more prominence to Hadash’s bread-and-butter issues of welfare and civil rights rather than to the Palestinian nationalist politics on which the other parties thrive.

They reminded me that the Hadash communists’ founder, Meir Vilner, was a signer of Israel’s declaration of independence. Hadash’s most prominent Jewish member today, Dov Khenin, is the Knesset’s leading environmentalist. Khenin’s 2008 campaign for mayor of Tel Aviv turned into a youth cult phenomenon and took 38% of the vote.

“People are very happy right now,” Samir Dabit said. “People have wanted a single Arab party for a long time, so it’s good that it’s finally happening.”

The new law hasn’t been so kind to everyone. Most likely to suffer from it are the left-wing Meretz, which is running close to the threshold, and, irony of ironies, Lieberman’s own Yisrael Beiteinu.

Meretz’s woes are due to a surge of party supporters shifting their vote to Herzog, in hopes of pushing him into first place and from there into the prime minister’s office. But it’s a Hobson’s choice for Meretz backers.

“People want to strengthen Herzog, so they switch their votes,” said retired diplomat Colette Avital, a former Labor lawmaker who switched her allegiance to Meretz a decade ago. “Three months ago we were getting 10 or 12 seats. Since Livni joined with Herzog it’s dropped to seven, then five, and it’s still going down. I’m afraid the party will disappear.”

As for Lieberman’s party, it started plummeting in the polls in the fall, apparently in response to Lieberman moderating his public image last year to increase his effectiveness as foreign minister. The shift delighted leaders in London, Paris and Washington, but it infuriated the party base.

“Lieberman’s base consisted of two groups, the secular right and first-generation Russian immigrants,” said one longtime acquaintance, who lives on a settlement near Lieberman’s West Bank home but didn’t want to be named. “When he started moving leftward the Russians stayed with him but the right moved to the Likud or Jewish Home.”

Then, on December 24, a group of party leaders was arrested on suspicion of participating in a massive graft and payoff scheme involving mayors, not-for-profit organizations and diverted public funds. It was allegedly directed out of the office of the Yisrael Beiteinu party’s director general.

Nobody suggested that Lieberman himself was involved or even knew about it. But the bottom has fallen out of his party’s support. He’s now scraping the edge of the new, higher threshold he created. He might see his political vehicle destroyed March 17 by the law he championed, while his intended targets thrive.

Avi Mizrahi, 57, a retired general in the Israel Defense Forces, prides himself on his in-depth understanding of the Palestinian mind. Right now, though, as the election approaches, it’s his fellow Israelis who seem to be leaving him a tad baffled.

Mizrahi ended his military career in 2012 with the rank of major general. That makes him part of a tiny elite in Israeli society, as only 22 major generals serve in the IDF at any given time. His last assignment was chief of Central Command, in charge of Israel’s presence in the West Bank. Since retiring he’s been working as an executive with a defense contractor.

More recently he started volunteering as a spokesman for something called Commanders for Israel’s Security. It’s made up of retired generals and intelligence chiefs campaigning for a regional Middle East security conference under U.S.-Saudi-Egyptian auspices.

The conference, a cousin of Peri’s proposal from last summer, would operate on two tracks. One would plot out regional cooperation between Israel and moderate Arab states in the face of threats from the Islamic State group and Iran. The other would discuss an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on the Arab Peace Initiative, as Peri’s plan proposed.

“I don’t agree with all of it,” Mizrahi said of the Arab Peace Initiative while pouring me a cup of coffee in his kitchen. “But it’s a basis to start talking.”

The most important element of the plan, he said, is that it could overcome the Palestinians’ chronic inability to close a deal, because “the Arabs will force them to keep up their end.” Since the eruption of the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamic State, senior security figures in both Israel and the moderate Arab states have come to see cooperation as urgent. The Arab side, however, insists that a Palestinian peace deal be part of the package.

The generals’ campaign began shortly after last summer’s Gaza war, with a newspaper advertisement signed by 105 retired generals, police commissioners and spy chiefs. Since December 2, when Netanyahu called new elections, the generals have grown to 183 strong — perhaps one-third of all the country’s living ex-generals — and released a series of punchy television ads.

Mizrahi appears on screen at the end to deliver the closing pitch: We will support any government that calls for a regional peace conference based on the Arab initiative. Never in Israel’s history has such a large group of ex-generals spoken out together on anything.

It’s a fairly transparent dump-Netanyahu message, since the prime minister rejects the Arab initiative. In fact, some of the group’s commercials come right out and say it: “Time for a change.” Mizrahi insists the group is nonpartisan, though. “We say any government, and we mean it,” he told me.

When I first spoke to Mizrahi by phone, in early February, I was eager to hear whether he thought the generals’ campaign would have much influence on the public.

“Probably not,” he said, with an audible sigh.

Why not? I asked.

He didn’t have an answer. “It’s not clear,” he said. Then he sighed again.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at [email protected]


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