Every election cycle needs an eleventh hour surprise, and this year’s belongs to Tzipi Livni, who managed to grab the headlines from Netanyahu and change the discussion with her last-minute announcement she’s forgoing the opportunity to serve as prime minister in rotation, if her party, the Zionist Union, leads the next coalition.
Livni’s announcement, delivered just in time for Israel’s evening newscasts, was explained by her wish to “focus on defeating Netanyahu.” In practice, it was a long-expected decision based primarily on internal political considerations and unflattering polling numbers.
Isaac Herzog’s decision to take in Livni, and what was left from her party, Hatnuah, to form the new Zionist Union where both leaders share power and rotate as prime ministers if elected, was viewed at the start as a game changer. And for a while, this political marriage did seem to energize Herzog’s otherwise lackluster campaign.
But as elections neared, it become clear that Livni, and the promise to make her prime minister after Herzog’s first two years, was turning into an electoral burden. Centrist voters expressed in public opinion polls their dissatisfaction with Livni, giving her low approval ratings when asked if she is suited to serve as prime minister. They viewed her as being a lefty and disliked her focus on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
With numbers stagnating last month, the Zionist Camp brought in a new campaign strategist who immediately moved to push Livni aside. Herzog began appearing on his own, without Livni by his side, and the party’s election posters now put Herzog in the center and Livni behind him. Poll numbers began to climb once again.
Dropping the rotation agreement became inevitable, although Herzog made clear that as a gentleman, he would not initiate such a move. It was Livni who eventually got the message and graciously gave up on the promise to serve as part-time leader of the Jewish state.
Waiting for the last minute to announce the move could have its perils, however. While Livni did succeed in shifting attention away from Netanyahu, the last dramatic move on the night before polling stations open is also viewed as a sign of insecurity, or, as some pundits in Israel have put it, of a panic attack.
But the Zionist Union views it as a necessary step that could win back centrists who were deterred by Livni’s prominent role in the new party and shifted toward Moshe Kahlon’s party. Kahlon, the true balancing point of these elections, has refused to declare his allegiance to either Netanyahu or to Herzog and more votes to his party would make it harder for Herzog to form the next coalition.
This last-minute gambit could bring back voters, assuming there are still Israelis who have not made up their mind yet, less than 12 hours before they go to the polls.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.