Likud Lead Narrows Amidst High Drama in Israeli Elections

Last week, high political drama in Israel seemed likely to lead to a widening of the gap between front-runners Likud and HaMachane haTziyoni. However, effective damage control by HaMachane haTziyoni head Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog has instead narrowed Likud’s lead.

At issue was the eligibility of current MK Hanin Zoabi to form the United Arab List. Zuabi is currently associated with the Balad (“Homeland”) party, which recently merged with Ra’am-Ta’al and the Chadash (“New”) party, as the Israeli Communist party calls itself.

Zoabi has engaged in many acts of incitement to violence against Jews in Israel. Speaking at a pro-Hamas rally in northern Israel last August, she said:

We are part of the Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance in Gaza, which failed all Israeli targets, both military and political. The victory of the Palestinian people is still occupied, however, and we cannot break it by force -- only through a just political solution and ending the siege and the occupation.

We cannot separate from the resistance of the Palestinian people, it is part of us. Thus, they will end the resistance only when there is an end to their oppression, and you cannot break them in their steadfastness.

Zoabi had previously said that “Israel has no right to a normal life,” and that the “Israeli occupation” was responsible for the murder of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Perhaps most shocking, she also said that the Hamas members who abducted and killed three Israeli teenagers last summer were “not terrorists,” but engaged in a “legitimate” way to “fight the occupation.”

Zoabi first gained notoriety for her presence on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which tried to run the Israeli navy’s blockade that prevents weapons shipments into Gaza. This resulted in navy commandos having to board the ship and engage in a fight that ended with several casualties.

Parliamentary immunity has, in the past, protected her from the consequences of some of her statements. Last week, discussion commenced in the Knesset concerning a possible ban on Zoabi running in the current elections.

Originally, HaMachane haTziyoni agreed to sign on to the petition for the ban -- but only on the condition that Baruch Marzel, former spokesman for the late Rabbi Me’ir Kahane and number four on the Yachad list, also be banned as a “racist.” A petition to ban Marzel had already been filed by Zahava Gal-On of Meretz.

However, HaMachane haTziyoni announced at the beginning of the week that it was backing down from signing the petition to ban Zoabi. This apparently happened under pressure from Arab MKs who would be vital to Herzog’s ability to form a governing coalition were he to win the largest number of seats in the March election.

Though Arabs have been members of governing parties in the past, it would be unprecedented for any of the purely ethnic Arab parties -- or the Chadash party -- to be coalition partners in their own right. Herzog immediately came under harsh criticism across Israel.

In the end, the Election Committee met on Thursday under the chairmanship of Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran (an Israeli Arab), and voted 27-6 to ban Zoabi (Joubran abstained). HaMachane haTziyoni voted for the ban, despite the earlier pronouncement.

Marzel was also banned, but by a much narrower vote: 17-16. Both cases will go before the Israeli Supreme Court for confirmation or revocation of the ban.

The numbers indicated by the digest of polls released on Friday show a much tighter race than the previous week:

                                                       Current            Last Week                       

Likud:                                                 25                        26

HaMachane haTziyoni:               24                        22

HaBayit haYehudi:                        13                        13

United Arab List:                           13                        12

Yesh Atid:                                          9                         11

Shas:                                                    8                         7

Yahadut haTorah:                          7                          8

Kulanu:                                              7                          7

Meretz:                                               5                          5

Yisrael Beytenu:                             5                          5

Yachad:                                              4                          4

The coalition is still likely to consist of Likud, HaBayit haYehudi, Shas, Yahadut haTorah, Kulanu, and Yachad (64 seats), but the race has tightened considerably.