With voters undecided, an attack or foreign setback may make or break Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu

World Focus: Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni have a chance if the polls stay this way

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The electoral alliance that is challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of Israel enjoys a slim lead over his Likud party with polling two months away.

A survey published in Haaretz, together with other recent polls showing similar results, make it impossible to predict who will form the next government since that will probably depend on the preferences of smaller parties. These parties could align either with Mr Netanyahu or Isaac Herzog, the Labour party leader who heads the Zionist Camp grouping together with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. But it is by no means inconceivable that Mr Netanyahu’s dominance of Israeli politics will end on 17 March.

The poll of 513 respondents showed the Zionist Camp list gaining 23 seats compared with 22 for Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party. That marked a two-seat gain for the Zionist Camp and a one-seat increase for Likud over a poll three weeks ago. The far-right Jewish Home party, a natural Likud partner, scored well with 16 seats.

“Herzog and Livni have a chance to do it if the polls stay this way and they are flexible enough to have an umbrella” that would include diverse smaller parties, says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies. Such a change after six years would be welcomed by the international community, which largely blames Mr Netanyahu for the collapse of peace talks in April, as it could lead to the resumption of negotiations. But Mr Alpher doubts it would produce a peace agreement because, he believes, the gaps between the two sides are simply too wide.

Mr Herzog’s challenge is that  many doubt he has the experience, particularly in security affairs, to lead the country. He has never held a top security or foreign affairs post and seems to be hanging on to Ms Livni’s coat-tail in that respect. In the Haaretz poll, 46 per cent said Mr Netanyahu was most suited to be PM, with only 30 per cent choosing Mr Herzog.

Conversely, due to widespread public distress over the high cost of living and housing, Mr Netanyahu is vulnerable if the campaign focuses primarily on socio-economic issues.

Tellingly, at the launch of Likud’s campaign on Monday night, the premier hardly mentioned these pressing problems, instead using his old method of sowing fear of regional enemies and trying to convince the public they will be unsafe with Mr Herzog. “Tzipi and Buji are going to preserve security?” he asked disdainfully, using Mr Herzog’s nickname. “Will they stand up against Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran? They won’t be able to handle the pressure, even for a moment. They are not only weak. They want to surrender and make concessions.”

The crowd of Likud activists applauded the speech and the introduction of the top 30 Likud Knesset candidates, including many opponents of a two-state compromise with the Palestinians who gained seats in the last election two years ago. But there was also an undercurrent of concern that things could go wrong this time if smaller parties siphon off Likud votes. Of particular concern are the Kulanu party, headed by former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Neither of these leaders has made clear whether they will side with Mr Netanyahu or Mr Herzog. “They are the Achilles heel,” said Likud committee member Joe Pickel. In what is good news for Mr Netanyahu, Tuesday’s poll showed both Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu, which is mired in a corruption scandal, losing support.

For all this, the outcome of this election may well be decided at the last minute by some unforeseen development such as a rocket attack or foreign policy setback that would sway the results towards Mr Netanyahu or Mr Herzog respectively.