Hope and Change in Israel

Many see in Herzog a real alternative to Netanyahu


On 7 March, with 10 days to go before the Israeli election, the former head of Mossad (Israel’s equivalent of MI6) Meir Dagan spoke to a 30,000 strong Peace Now rally to call for the removal of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He is dragging us down to a bi-national state and to the end of the Zionist dream,” said Dagan, close to tears.

In the crowd was my mother, who told me afterwards: “I didn’t think there was a chance before, but maybe, maybe Bibi will be removed.”

In December last year, at the start of campaigning, I wrote a piece for this blog titled Eight reasons why the centre-left could form Israel’s next government. Some of my friends in Israel thought I was being a tad over-optimistic.

Although the formation of the Zionist Union (a merger of the Labour Party and centrist Hatnuah) united the centre-left and turned the election into a two horse race, it still looked more likely that Netanyahu would form the government. However, the latest polls indicate that Zionist Union appear to be pulling ahead: with 26 predicted seats in elections to Israel’s 120 seat Knesset, while Likud’s share of the vote appears to be plummeting from a high of 27 to around 21.

This gap is significant, with such a gap over Likud, it would be difficult for Israel’s President Rivlin not to ask Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog to have the first attempt at forming a coalition.

This is a sharp contrast from a few months ago, where, despite a seemingly endless stream of bad news for Netanyahu – reports of extortionate spending at the prime minister’s residence, a major report into the country’s housing crisis, and the public disagreements with the Obama – nothing seemed to stick. Israel’s most popular satire show Eretz Nehederet even produced a song which in many ways reflected the semi-despairing mood of the Israeli-centre left ‘No Matter what I do, you’ll still vote for me’.

How things have changed. “This campaign was a colossal failure. Netanyahu is primarily responsible,” lamented a senior Likud Party official recently. In this election campaign, Likud – unlike virtually all other political parties in Israel – have not focused on socio-economic issues, the dominant issue of this electoral cycle.

Instead, they have adopted what many perceive to be a much more negative campaign: including controversial adverts suggesting that the left would bring ISIS closer to Jerusalem and comparing public sector workers to Hamas (which they subsequently apologised for and removed); all of this without publishing a manifesto of their own.

“The public needs to grow up and stop believing in rosy dreams,” said Likud member of Knesset Zeev Elkin at one debate. “Without rosy dreams, there would be no State of Israel,” responded Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir.

Shaffir was one of the leaders of Israel’s social protests, which in 2011 saw 500,000 Israelis take to the streets to demand social justice. As I said four months ago, many of the reasons for the protests have not gone away.

What is worse for Likud is that Netanyahu is blamed for much of them – even many of Likud’s core voters are abandoning them. Planned redundancies in a chemical plant in the Negev saw Likud affiliated trade unionists burning their party membership cards. Many of Likud’s core supporters are receptive to Zionist Union’s message, Israel’s Channel 2 even included a feature Isaac Herzog touring Likud’s most popular strongholds – something which few would have thought would be possible.

For many Israelis, the promise of a better economic future, rather than the threat of Iran or ISIS, will determine how they vote. And many are increasingly seeing in Herzog a real alternative to Netanyahu.

Ari Shavit, Haaretz commentator and author of My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel expresses eloquently the thoughts of many Israelis: “Herzog has done the impossible: He has restored hope. He took a country that seemed entirely in the dark and turned on a light. All of a sudden, thanks to him, you can see Israel returning to itself, to its essence, to what it’s supposed to be.”

On 17 March we will see what happens to Shavit’s hopes, and Israel’s future.

Lorin Bell-Cross is a researcher at BICOM and assistant editor of Fathom Journal. Follow him on Twitter

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