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Shira Herzog (Deborah Baic)
Shira Herzog (Deborah Baic)

SHIRA HERZOG

Netanyahu’s out front but alliances are shifting Add to ...

It’s early days in Israel’s election campaign. It appears Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have no trouble forming a government after Jan. 22, but already there are some surprises. His security focus is challenged by other parties’ emphasis on domestic matters. On the centre-left, there’s a flurry of shifting alliances. And noticeably, the Palestinian issue is barely mentioned.

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To follow Israeli politics, it’s necessary to understand political blocs. Because governments are coalitions, a party leader’s ability to muster more than 60 out of 120 Knesset seats is critical for a parliamentary majority. Current polls show the right-wing bloc with 63 to 66 seats and the centre-left bloc with 54 to 57. Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud is dominant because it has natural coalition allies – tough-talking Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (in fact, Mr. Netanyahu said on Thursday that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu are joining forces), the ultra-Orthodox Shas and smaller nationalist parties. But small variances in either bloc’s numbers can affect the outcome – and the real battle is over votes that can go either way.

This election was timed to divert attention from economic issues and to focus on threats emanating from Iran, Syria’s internecine violence and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Netanyahu is peerless in portraying Israel’s vulnerability in a hostile region and an “Arab Spring” in which he never believed. But he may be in for a surprise. If past elections have been about peace and security, the genie of last year’s massive social protest refuses to be rebottled this time. Mr. Netanyahu wants to forget that hundreds of thousands of Israelis marched in the streets in the summer of 2011, but parties across the spectrum won’t let him. The anger over the government’s lack of response to demands for tax breaks and affordable housing shouldn’t be underestimated.

Israel’s founding Labour Party, whose demise has been repeatedly predicted, is reinventing itself as the key social democratic voice and attracting new support and talent such as Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shafir, leaders of last year’s protest. Labour Leader Shelly Yachimovich wants to fight the election on grievances that fuel middle-class discontent. So do players such as broadcaster Yair Lapid, who’s formed a new party, and Aryeh Deri, the comeback leader of Shas, who’s crafting a social policy platform he hopes will have broad appeal.

Accustomed to power, the right is remaining fairly consistent. The action’s on the centre-left. Kadima, the leading opposition party, will weaken further if former leader Tzipi Livni or former prime minister Ehud Olmert (mired in legal battles over allegations of bribery) decide to run again in a new party. There’s a yearning for Ms. Livni’s return to politics because of her untarnished reputation and her commitment to the Palestinian issue. If she runs alone, she won’t influence numbers much; but if she joins forces with Labour, she could tip the balance in favour of the centre-left bloc.

The political turmoil is marked by a “privatization” of Israeli politics. Party loyalties mean little to the activists, business leaders, journalists and former military officers vying for spots on existing and new party lists. (Israelis vote for party lists, the composition of which is determined by either internal primaries or committee.)

Most striking in this campaign, though, is the absence of any discussion of the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu is content to focus on Iran. Ms. Yachimovich visibly skirts the issue, reflecting Israelis’ indifference, distrust of the Palestinian leadership and reluctance to take on the settler lobby. As for the U.S., sources close to Barack Obama doubt he’ll engage on the peace process in a second term, and it’s unlikely Mitt Romney will if he’s elected. Only the Palestinians could revive the discussion with a bold offer. That’s a long shot, especially given Hamas’s strengthened position.

A lot will happen in the next 90 days. What’s clear is that, even if Mr. Netanyahu makes it back to the top slot, the going may be tougher than he anticipated.

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