My Word: Polls apart and ballots apart

Nobody can predict with certainty who is going to head the next government or how long that government is going to last.

March 12, 2015 22:05
Netanyahu and Herzog

Netanyahu and Herzog. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST,REUTERS)


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To Bibi or to Buji – would that the question were that simple.

Shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu declared early elections at the end of 2014, a move he probably now regrets, there was a flurry of opinion pieces in the Hebrew-language press calling on journalists to announce whom they were supporting, supposedly for the sake of transparency.

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I thought the crusade was strange. It’s true that the once golden rule of not mixing opinion with news has grown increasingly tarnished over the years, but in most cases it is obvious whether a particular columnist leans Left or Right or struggles to remain in the Center, and there is no reason why a writer, as opposed to, say, a judge or school principal, needs to declare where his or her affinities lie.

The ballot is secret. In the ballot booth, it’s just the citizen and his or her conscience. That’s one of the joys of democracy. And fortunately there is no law about changing your mind or making it up at the last minute.

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In the not-so-distant past, by this time in an election period, the various parties would be commanding a visible presence on the street with campaign posters, bumper stickers, leaflets and enthusiastic youth bedecked in T-shirts with a clearly recognizable party slogan.

This year, the streets, at least in the areas where I hang out, lack that buzz.

To a certain extent, the social media and TV satire shows have taken over. Netanyahu’s address to Congress on Iran might go down in history as a significant step toward preventing the Islamic Republic gaining nuclear weapons, but in Israel it will be the Bibi-sitter campaign sketch that will be recalled.

Catchphrases like “Hu lo yada” (He didn’t know) and Naftali Bennett’s “Dai kvar” (Enough already) have taken on a life of their own.

Sadly, I suspect that there is a large proportion of voters whose main source of information is from the over-the-top take-offs on TV.

It has reached a stage when President Reuven Rivlin opened his official residence to host a gathering of those considering abstaining from the vote altogether.

It turns out Netanyahu’s first mistake – before firing finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni and calling the elections ostensibly over the budget – was his embarrassingly public attempts to find someone else – anyone else – to follow Shimon Peres as president. He’s lucky that Rivlin is a principled, decent person, for it is the president who ultimately gets to determine who will be the next prime minister: The president offers the party leader he deems most able of creating a stable coalition the chance to set up a government, and that is not necessarily the leader whose party received the greatest number of votes.

And as the saying goes, it ain’t over until it’s over.

In 1996, the first year of the later abandoned system of direct elections for prime minister, I was one of those people who went to sleep (late) thinking Peres had won, as the initial exit polls indicated, and woke up to find Netanyahu had overtaken him. The shock in Tel Aviv, where I spent election night, was almost palpable, as was the relief in Jerusalem’s Katamonim area, where I lived.

This year, incidentally, in the neighborhood that was once a Likud stronghold, the greatest presence is Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party focusing entirely on social issues.

The country has been hit by thousands of rockets, resulting in three mini-wars in Gaza within the last six years, and even the most vociferous members of the pro-peace camp admit that it is hard to imagine reaching an agreement with the Palestinians any time soon.

In the North, al-Qaida affiliates sit on the Syrian border while Iranian proxy Hezbollah is openly stockpiling rockets (and just imagine if they get access to nuclear weapons). Islamic State this week killed an Israeli Arab it accused of being a Mossad spy. The executioner was a boy, about 12 years old. Meanwhile, a video released by Islamic State of two deaf-mute brothers directing traffic and using sign language to urge other deaf and disabled Muslims to join the jihadist organization would have been comic if it hadn’t been so tragic: the throat-cutting gesture no less than the subtitles in English and Arabic made it clear that this is no benevolent social inclusion program.

No wonder many Israelis are concentrating on more prosaic matters of daily life rather than security and the elusive promise of peace.

AS WITH every election, the so-called “ethnic genie” was let out of the bottle: Shas leader Arye Deri very prominently restored “Mahlouf” as his middle name to emphasize his Sephardi identity, while the Left’s rally on March 7 was marred by the jibes at the religious and “amulet-kissing” non-Ashkenazim pronounced by artist Yair Garbuz. Bennett scored an own goal when he briefly persuaded Sephardi soccer legend Eli Ohana to parachute onto his list, despite his lack of political experience.

But while politicians think the ethnic card might help them, increasing numbers of voters seem to be deterred by it and a generation has grown up in an era when mixed Ashkenazi- Sephardi marriages are far from rare.

The often sordid rivalry between Deri’s Shas and Eli Yishai’s newly formed Yahad joint list with ultra-right Baruch Marzel, both claiming to be the natural choice of the Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who died a year ago, isn’t helping either of them. Secretly taped conversations with the ailing Yosef contain a greater element of voyeurism than insight.

Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman is probably kicking himself for his move to raise the electoral threshold. His obvious intention was to reduce the number of Arab MKs. Instead, in one of these elections’ biggest surprises, the four Arab parties managed to bury their differences long enough to create the Joint List, which could result in enough mandates to wield significant political clout – as long as the disparate factions including Islamists and Communists manage to stay together.

Back to those campaign clips – the one in which the Likud likened the unions of the dock workers and the Israel Broadcasting Authority to Hamas boomeranged. If Likud minister Gilad Erdan feels his greatest achievement is disbanding the public broadcasting system – putting 2,000 people’s jobs on the line – rushing to pass the legislation while the war in Gaza was still raging, he has mistaken the identity of the true enemy. No wonder Netanyahu has shied away from interviews and a debate on ITV and Israel Radio.

Labor’s Isaac “Buji” Herzog has also made mistakes. In public he says he has no regrets about his shotgun wedding and rotation agreement with Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni, but he could end up paying a price for joining up with the woman who serially party hops.

The sketch by their political rivals showing her as an inseparable part of a pizza order – ask for Buji and you’ll be stuck with Tzipi – was one of the most memorable in this year’s electioneering.

Changing the name of the party from the easily recognized Labor to the Zionist Union was also a risky move – dropping in one fell swoop all that Labor has proudly stood for over the years in favor of something amorphous and lacking in history.

Herzog’s makeover for the elections didn’t help him either. As one journalist quipped, it must be the first time in history that a politician photoshopped his election posters to add wrinkles. Making such an effort to project a less baby-face, more macho image, merely increased the jokes at Buji’s expense, although he’s doing much better in the polls than Bibi would like.

But polls apart and ballots apart. Ask Livni about the perils of predicting results: In 2009, she gave a celebratory speech, sounding a bit like an over-excited bat-mitzva girl, when she should have realized that she might have narrowly beaten Netanyahu in the polls but she wouldn’t be able to establish a coalition.

The results of the elections won’t be known on Tuesday. The real work in creating a new government starts on Wednesday, and ultimately Netanyahu’s chances depend on several people, from the president down, whom he has offended in the past.

Nobody can predict with certainty who is going to head the next government or how long that government is going to last. A substantial number of people still don’t know whom they are voting for, only whom they are voting against. Wild cards translate into unpredictable ballot slips.

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