Israel's Elections Tuesday Are Too Close To Call

Jerusalem — Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party are sitting atop the pack ahead of Tuesday’s general elections in Israel, but a tightening race and a blackout on public polling in the final weekend mean a Likud victory is far from assured.

The emergence of Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Israel Our Home Party as a major player in the election is a further complicating factor. Notoriously unreliable Israeli polls, a large pool of undecided voters — as many as 30% by some reckoning — and possible last-minute external events, such as a terrorist attack or Hamas’ release of captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, make for a volatile political situation.

News has leaked that Netanyahu has already begun planning a transition team, but it may be premature. In one of the last polls released, Likud’s lead over Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party had slipped to a slim three-seat margin, with Likud being projected winner of only 26 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. One poll showed the two parties only two seats apart. Overall the trend has been away from Likud, which had a nearly 20-seat lead in early polls last fall.

The party receiving the largest number of votes will be asked by President Shimon Peres to form a government by building a coalition topping 60 seats, the necessary majority in Israel’s parliamentary system.

"Who knows what will happen,” journalist Shmuel Rosner told me. Rosner, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, has been tracking all the major polls and has created an overall poll trendline, but even he is uncertain about the outcome.

One development seems clear, though: the Israeli electorate as a whole is moving to the right. Left-wing votes are migrating to more centrist parties, and right-wing voters are leaving the center-right Likud to support Lieberman’s aggressively nationalist and anti-Arab agenda. Netanyahu’s numbers have dropped in almost direct proportion to Lieberman’s rise in the polls. The other two major parties, Kadima and Labor, headed by Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, have strengthened at the expense of farther left parties.

Commentator Gerald Steinberg said the war in Gaza, continuing vulnerability to terrorism, and a flood of what Israelis see as biased condemnations around the world, have added to the country’s rising bitterness over Arab efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state. And that doesn’t even take into account Iran’s threats to “wipe Israel off the map.”

"There is growing anger and pessimism among many voters," Steinberg said. That’s why polls are showing increased support for Lieberman and others promising a strong response to these threats, he said.

If Likud receives the largest number of seats, Netanyahu will be asked to form a government. He said this week he wants to build a grand coalition of all "Zionist" political parties, which could include both his erstwhile opponents, Labor and Kadima.

"If I’m elected I intend to unify all the central forces in the nation to create a national unity government that is as wide as possible," Netanyahu said.

Yet that may be easier said than done, as each party has conflicting interests and internal conflicts that may cause significant infighting before a coalition is hammered together.

In recent days, as the situation has continued to evolve, Netanyahu has publicly promised Lieberman a major role in the government if Likud comes out on top, reversing earlier efforts to criticize Lieberman, a onetime Likud official.

"If you vote for another party, the Likud will be weakened, but if you vote for Likud, I will be prime minister and make Lieberman an important minister in my cabinet and build a strong government," Netanyahu told Lieberman supporters at a Tel Aviv rally this week.

Netanyahu has also spoken publicly of bringing Labor into his new government, should he win. He praised Barak’s performance as Defense Minister in the Gaza War and noted that Labor and Israel Our Home have sat together in previous coalition governments.

Labor is badly split on the prospect of sitting with Lieberman, whose anti-Arab rhetoric is difficult for many to swallow. One of Lieberman’s core political planks is a land swap in an eventual settlement with the Palestinian Authority that would effectively transfer thousands of Israeli Arabs now in the country’s north to what would become Palestine.

"We ask for loyalty from every citizen of Israel," Lieberman said at the widely attended Herzliya Conference this week. "Every citizen has equal rights and equal obligations. This includes the obligation to serve in the army or in the national service, loyalty to the flag and anthem."

Barak has declared himself open to joining a government with Lieberman, yet one Labor strategist told me such a step could destroy the venerable party, which held an iron grip on Israeli politics from before the country’s founding until Likud’s 1977 victory led by Menahem Begin. Labor has been in decline ever since, and has led the country only sporadically in recent decades.

Talk of a Likud-Labor-Israel Our Home coalition, rounded out by several minor parties, is aimed at burying Livni and Kadima, the party founded less than four years ago by Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres. The two old warhorses of Israeli politics were personal friends who walked out of Likud and Labor, respectively to form Kadima, but the party has struggled since Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke and Ehud Olmert took over the party and the prime minister’s seat. Olmert is leaving politics under a cloud of corruption charges and criticism over his handling of the 2006 war with Hizballah.

Yet Livni — who has attempted to soften her image in an effort to appeal to women in the days since the cease-fire in Gaza — and Kadima may not go gently into the good night. Kadima’s poll numbers have firmed in the mid-20s, and are trending slightly upward.

A final possible wild card is a new merged effort of the small liberal religious party Meimad, which left a previous affiliation with Labor, and a new Green Party, headed up by several well-known environmental activists. The new party has not shown up on most polls as gathering enough votes to win Knesset seats — a minimum of 3 percent is needed for two seats.  But a senior party activist touted poll data to me that he said suggests the party could receive as many as seven seats.

His claim may not just be spin. A single-issue party urging pensioners’ rights did not show up in any pre-election polls in the last election in 2006 yet walked off with a shocking seven seats in the Knesset. A last-minute protest vote and late-breaking undecideds pushed that party into the limelight. The Greens are hoping lightning will strike twice but hit them this time.