If the pre-election polls out of Israel teach us anything, it’s about the strength and weakness of pre-election polls.
The strength is that they’re a pretty accurate reflection of what people are thinking. The proof of this is that the flood of polls coming every day from just about every media outlet, right, left and center, and every polling organization regardless of technique, show pretty much the same thing.
The weakness is that they only show what would happen if the election were held today. They don’t tell you how unexpected events in the real world might influence voter opinion. The shift can be dramatic.
Exhibit A: Today’s Rafi Smith poll, published in Globes (the Hebrew original differs slightly from the English translation, so I’m going with the Hebrew). Unlike all the other polls (watch Jeremy’s Knesset Insider for a daily roundup), Globes asked not only how respondents would vote today, but also how they’d vote if Tzipi Livni ran on a joint list with Labor Party leader Yitzhak Herzog. Answer: It would change everything, putting Herzog in the lead. Incumbent prime minister Bibi Netanyahu would lose.
The polls have been showing consistently all week, since Netanyahu called on Tuesday for early elections, that if the vote were held today, the Likud would lead the pack and Bibi would get another term. Likud would get 22 to 24 seats in the 120-member Knesset (just over 1/6 of the total), followed by Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home party with 17 or 18. Labor would be a distant third with 13 (in some polls 14 or 15). Lapid would drop to 10 or 11 from his current 19,
As Jeremy points out, that would give the religious and right-wing parties 77 seats, versus 33 for the anti-annexation parties of the center, left and Arab blocs. (The current Knesset has the two blocs nearly even at 61 to 59.)
If Herzog and Livni joined forces, though, their combined slate would jump ahead to 24 seats, besting the Likud’s 22. That would give Herzog first crack at trying to assemble a coalition.
Sound far-fetched? The deal is believed likely to be sealed this weekend, when Herzog and Livni are together in Washington at the Saban Forum.
Under the deal, the two would reportedly form a joint Knesset slate and sit together as a joint caucus in parliament while retaining separate party organizations. That’s the format that Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman used to create their Likud-Beiteinu list entering the last Knesset elections in 2013. Lieberman broke up the partnership in July 2014.
Livni reportedly is to receive a guarantee of two slots in the first 10 on the joint list for herself and Amir Peretz (himself a former Labor Party chairman). The fate of Livni’s other four deputies (including another former Labor Party chairman, Amram Mitzna) has yet to be negotiated.
Similar arrangements were also used to create the 1960s-era Labor Alignment between Mapai, Ahdut Ha’avoda and Rafi, which eventually merged into the Labor Party. It was also the formula under which Herut and the Liberals joined to form Gahal (Gush Herut-Liberalim) and then the Likud (with Ariel Sharon’s Shlomzion), which similarly evolved into a single party organization.
Livni is said to be in negotiations also with Yair Lapid, but those negotiations are less advanced. A Lapid-Livni deal is said to be less attractive to Livni because the polls don’t show it overtaking Netanyahu’s Likud.
Globes’ poll analyst Lilach Weissman writes that even if a Herzog-Livni slate took first place in balloting, Herzog wouldn’t succeed in forming a coalition, because there wouldn’t be enough seats in the center-left bloc to give him a majority of the house. Most of the gains to the combined Labor-Livni list, she writes, would come at the expense of other center-left parties, mainly Lapid’s Yesh Atid (which would drop from 11 to 7, Globes found) and Meretz (from 7 to 5). Even if Bibi came in second, then, he’d get to form the government as a majority of the house would ask the president to tap him. (That’s how he became prime minister in 2009: He came in second to Livni’s Kadima, but she couldn’t round up a coalition.)
It’s not clear that Weissman and Jeremy are reading the map correctly, though, when they calculate the relative strengths of right vs. center-left. Their tallies of the right-wing parties that wouldn’t be open to join a Herzog coalition include three sizable blocs that actually can’t be ruled out as members of a center-left government.
The leaders of all three have indicated that they might be willing to join a Herzog government depending on the terms they’re offered. All three have stated outright, just in the last few days, that they’re open to territorial compromise leading to a Palestinian state, the main issue dividing right and center-left. Perhaps more important, they’re all known to harbor feelings toward Netanyahu that range from dislike to loathing.
They include Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, with 10 to 12 seats predicted in current polls; the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, with 15 to 17 seats between them; and a new party announced by onetime Likud wunderkind Moshe Kahlon, It’s given 10 to 11 seats in the polls even though it doesn’t yet have a name, a rear bench or a platform.
Let’s take them one at a time:
Lieberman, Moldova-born, has long been considered an extreme right-winger, known for his open hostility toward Arabs, including Israeli citizens, and his hard line on civil liberties. On the other hand, he announced in 2009 that he had come to support Palestinian statehood and would even be willing to give up his home in the settlement of Nokdim in return for peace. His vision of the two-state solution includes land swaps in which Israeli Arab villages would become part of the Palestinian state. That’s widely seen as racist — some call it “transfer-in-place” — though it has some important Labor backers, too, including former party bigshot Ephraim Sneh.
Lieberman was a top aide to Netanyahu in the 1990s but broke with him in 1997 over Netanyahu’s negotiations with the Palestinians. He later formed his own hardline party, Yisrael Beiteinu, based on Russian immigrant voters. Lieberman joined forces again with Netanyahu for the 2009 elections and Lieberman became foreign minister in the Netanyahu government, but was largely shunned in the West for his crude manner and hardline views. He was forced to resign the cabinet in December 2012 when he was indicted on corruption charges, but returned to the Foreign Ministry after being acquitted in November 2013.
During the past year he has undergone a dramatic and widely remarked makeover, adopting a moderate stance and manner at home and abroad. He’s become a welcome visitor in Western capitals, particularly as defense minister Moshe Yaalon has become increasingly abrasive toward Washington and Europe. He’s now seen in Washington and elsewhere as a key moderating force in the current Netanyahu government.
Second, Kahlon. An economic populist of Moroccan Jewish origin, he entered the Knesset on the Likud list in 2003. Soaring in the polls as a hero of the Likud’s Sephardic working-class base, he swept the swept the party primaries in 2006, earning a cabinet seat as minister of communications. He passed a highly popular cell-phone reform that opened up the market to competition, making the phones cheaper, more accessible and more ubiquitous than ever. In 2011 he became minister of welfare as well.
Kahlon announced in 2012 that he was quitting politics “to explore other options.” Last April he announced that he planned to return as head of a new political organization he intended to form. Since then he’s been largely silent about whom he’d ally with or what he’d stand for, other than frequent but vague promises to raise the standard of living for the disadvantaged, largely by increased competition and increased subsidies. He’s rumored to be in talks with several public figures, most of whom are identified with the left on peace and territories. One contact repeatedly mentioned is Adina Bar-Shalom, maverick eldest daughter of the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of Shas. She won the Israel Prize for her work promoting higher education among Haredi women, and has signed statements calling on Israel to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative. Other rumored to be talking with Kahlon include progressive-leaning economist Manuel Trachtenberg, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Yoav Galant, the controversial ex-candidate for IDF chief of staff.
Kahlon said this week for the first time that he would agree to give up territory on the West Bank if needed as part of a peace agreement. He also said he wouldn’t rule out entering a Netanyahu-led coalition.
At the same time, he’s widely reported to have been in talks in recent days with Lapid and Lieberman about strategy for defeating Netanyahu and replacing his Likud government with a more moderate centrist one. Their hope is that one of them will manage to outflank Herzog and come in second, thus winning the right to form a coalition if and when Bibi fails to do so.
The third figure identified as a possible addition to a Herzog government is Arye Deri of the Haredi-Sephardic Shas party. Shas is commonly identified as a right-wing party, and is closely allied with the Haredi-Ashkenazic bloc United Torah Judaism (itself a joint list of the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael party and the mitnagdic Degel HaTorah). But there’s little in Deri’s history to back up the right-wing label (unless you count his regressive social-cultural-gender views). The founder and chief strategist of Shas’s meteoric rise in 1984, he was a close friend of Labor dove Haim Ramon and was known himself to be a dove on the territories — a view strongly endorsed by his mentor, Ovadia Yosef — and a social-democrat on socio-economic issues.
Like other Haredi leaders, Deri doesn’t view withdrawing from territories as a religious problem, since the current state of Israel was not a product of messianic redemption and therefore is not bound by biblical laws of Jewish statecraft. By contrast, religious-Zionists and most Modern Orthodox Jews tend to believe that the Zionist return to Israel was a sign that messianic redemption had begun, and that the successive conquests of land in 1948 and 1967 were further miraculous signals of God’s intent for the Jews to reclaim the entire land.
Deri led has led Shas into nearly every governing coalition since its formation, including those of Laborites Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak as well as Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu. It was Deri’s conviction on bribery charges in 1999, after which Ovadia gave the party leadership to hardline rightist Eli Yishai, that led to Shas leaving Barak’s government in late 2000. Yishai’s departure shattered Barak’s coalition, upending the peace talks with Yasser Arafat that had resumed shortly after the Camp David walkout. The talks collapsed at Taba in January 2001 as Barak, shorn of his coalition, was about to lose an election to Ariel Sharon.
Deri reentered politics in 2012 after his mandatory 7-year timeout and was reinstated as party chief by Ovadia, relegating the embittered Yishai to No. 2. Shortly after the 2013 elections, in which Netanyahu formed an anti-Haredi coalition with Yair Lapid, Deri’s top party ally, former religious affairs minister Yitzhak Cohen, publicly called for Israel to enter talks with the Arab League and the PLO on the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative.
Hours after Netanyahu announced the dissolution of the current coalition on December 2, setting off a wave of speculation that he would form a new government with the Haredi parties, Deri called a press conference and declared that he had only two conditions for joining any new government, either now or after new elections: a rise in the minimum wage to 30 shekels per hour and eliminating Value Added Tax on essential commodities such as milk, bread, cooking oil and diapers.
In apparent response to Deri’s leftward signals, his rival Yishai is reportedly discussing leaving Shas in advance of the March 17 elections and forming a rival Sephardi-Haredi party. That might be the explanation for the [mysterious, surprise announcement] on Thursday by the head of the Shas faction on the Jerusalem city council, Natan Lasry, that he was resigning his party post and quitting the council. He’s known to be close to Yishai — though there were rumors as well that he’d been approached by Kahlon.
Of course, anything could happen in three months. Herzog could come in first and fail to bring Lapid and Deri together (though both have hinted clearly that they’d join forces to be rid of Bibi). Lieberman would probably refuse to sit in the same government with Meretz, and the feeling would probably be quite mutual.
Then again, there could be a mega-terrorist incident that reminds voters why they don’t trust peaceniks and sweeps Bibi back into office with a stronger mandate than ever. Polls only tell you what the voters are thinking today. To quote Scarlett O’Hara, tomorrow is another day.
So, as Max Bialystock said to Leo Bloom, let’s wait to hear from the majority.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).