A great many things are coming together as we approach the climax of the election season in Israel and the election, scheduled for March 17. First, the poll numbers at the end of last week:
Not much change. The moderate Left (HaMachane haYehudi) is maintaining its two-seat lead over Likud, but the sudden rise of the United Arab List to the number three spot and the decline of HaBayit haYehudi to fifth should be worrying to fans of Israel’s political right wing.
The two-seat drop for Naftali Bennett’s party may be attributed to two factors. The first is the undignified slanging match he has been engaged in with Yachad’s Baruch Marzel over who is more nationalistic than whom (some polls show Yachad gaining a fifth seat). Second, a number of prominent Religious Zionist rabbis — perhaps the most senior among them Rabbi Dov Lior, chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba – have pronounced that the Bayit Yehudi party is not a religious party and not the successor to the old National Religious Party. This is a stinging response to Bennett’s forced, secularizing changes to the party constitution late last year, which he obviously had thought would improve his appeal.
Meanwhile, things have been raucous on the campaign trail. At one campaign event scheduled on Saturday in the Wadi Ara region of northern Israel which was directed at its primarily Arab inhabitants, a near-riot erupted as dozens of protesters shouted: “You have blood on yours hands!” at HaMachane haTziyoni’s Yitzhak (“Buji”) Herzog and Tzipi Livni. Six were arrested for scuffling with police at the rally; several police officers were injured.
A similar event had been scheduled last month in the largely Arab town of Nazareth, but was canceled when the mayor and municipality came under heavy pressure from the United Arab List. Reportedly they were afraid that HaMachane haTziyoni would take away votes.
Another of their campaign events was seriously disrupted by a group of rowdy divorced fathers, upset because Herzog had used the phrase “single-parent families” in reference to families headed by women, including divorced women. Calm was partially restored by Tzipi Livni, who mentioned that she had proposed an amendment to the child custody law so that custody would no longer automatically be awarded to the mother in such cases. The amendment, she said, had been torpedoed by the Yesh Atid party.
The political Left has not been the only recipient of gate-crashers at its events. LGBT activists have been disrupting and shouting down events held by HaBayit haYehudi, calling the party “homophobic.” In event after event, they have suddenly stood up, unfurled their rainbow flag, and begun screaming until evicted by police.
Last Thursday night there was a major televised debate in which only eight of the eleven major parties (that is, all those whom the polls show crossing the threshold into the next Knesset) participated. Among the three non-participants were both of the leading parties.
Herzog said that he refused to appear without Netanyahu, and Netanyahu said that he refused to appear unless Tzipi Livni was also present (the arrangement that created HaMachane haYehudi out of the former Labor and HaTenu’a parties would have Livni becoming prime minister in Herzog’s place after two years). The third party which did not participate was the religious Yahadut haTorah party, because very few if any of its constituents own television sets, or would have watched it.
The consensus among the commentators is that Bennett (HaBayit haYehudi), Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), Aiman Oudeh (United Arab List) Eli Yishai (Yachad) and Moshe Kachlon (Kulanu) were all winners, coming off well and speaking calmly and substantively.
Aryeh Der’i (Shas), Ya’ir Lapid (Yesh Atid), and especially Avigdor Lieberman (Yisra’el Beytenu) all did less well, the latter two in particular getting bad marks for stridency, incoherence, and stiffness in debate. One poll, released Sunday by the religious nationalist news service Arutz 7, showed Likud rebounding to lead HaMachane haYehudi by two seats, HaBayit haYehudi rebounding to 14 seats, and Yachad gaining a seat to total five, while Shas plummeted to four in the wake of the debate.
All of this, of course, is the backdrop for Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress scheduled for Tuesday, March 3. It is surely not coincidental that the speech, expected to make Israel’s case for dealing with the Iranians, is scheduled for just before the Jewish holiday of Purim, which commemorates Jewish salvation from a Persian plot in the ancient world (see the Biblical Book of Esther for details). Whether it will serve as Bibi’s salvation remains to be seen.