Politics: Wooing voters by candlelight

As the countdown to elections begins, the festival of lights is the perfect backdrop for politicians to ignite their campaigns.

A giant menorah outside the White House in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS)
A giant menorah outside the White House in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since Hanukka began, dozens of Knesset candidates have sent pictures of themselves lighting candles to editors, in hopes of getting them in the newspapers.
The combination of Hanukka and elections has not been easy for the candidates, who have had to crisscross the country from one lighting ceremony to another as they blaze the campaign trail.
Several MKs have confided how guilty they feel about barely seeing their children during a holiday that is so family-focused. Others have kvetched about the fattening jelly doughnuts they have been forced to consume on each campaign stop in order to honor their hosts.
But the lighting ceremonies and doughnut dilemmas are not the only connection between Hanukka and politics in the Land of Israel.
After all, Hanukka commemorates what began as a civil war between the Maccabees and their allies who wanted to remain loyal to the Torah, and the Hellenists, who wanted to be like the Greeks and offered a pig on the altar in the Temple.
Exactly 2,178 years after the Maccabees’ miraculous victory, Jews continue to battle it out among themselves in their land, while under tremendous pressure from empires abroad. The fights will inevitably intensify until the March 17 general election.
Two weeks after that, just ahead of Passover, the victorious candidates will be sworn in to the Knesset.
On their way in, across the street from the parliament, they will see the statue of the menorah, which is a symbol of unity and sends a message to the MKs.
The menorah at the Temple was fashioned out of one enormous piece of gold, not parts cast together.
So too, the Knesset is supposed to act as a unified force – though it has almost never turned out that way.
Thankfully, for the Knesset to function, there is no need for all 120 MKs to get along. But there is a need for the 61-vote majority to compromise as part of a coalition.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out when he asked the Knesset to dissolve itself, wider coalitions with a lot more than 61 MKs are much more stable. His repeated statements about the need for a wide coalition have been interpreted as a hint about what government he would form if he won the election.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Netanyahu will win.
A poll taken by Panels Research on Wednesday for The Jerusalem Post and its Hebrew sister publication Maariv Sof Hashavua found that 58 percent of Israelis do not want him to remain prime minister.
Respondents gave Labor under opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua head Tzipi Livni two more seats than they gave Netanyahu’s Likud.
But the same poll indicated that Netanyahu would have an easier time building a coalition than Herzog or any other party leader. According to the survey, Netanyahu could form a comfortable coalition with Bayit Yehudi, Yisrael Beytenu, Moshe Kahlon’s Koolanu, United Torah Judaism, Shas and former Shas chairman Eli Yishai’s Ha’am Itanu party that would total 70 MKs.
If President Reuven Rivlin tasked Herzog with forming a coalition, the combination he could build of Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, Koolanu, UTJ, Shas and Ha’am Itanu – although it is still unclear how right-wing Yishai’s list will be and whether it would be a suitable match – comprises only 56 MKs.Chances are that Herzog would not be able to persuade Yesh Atid and UTJ to coexist. The three haredi parties would win 15 seats, making them more attractive coalition partners than Yesh Atid, with its 10.
Herzog’s associates have hinted he would prefer Yisrael Beytenu to Meretz if it won more seats, assuming party leaders Avigdor Liberman and Zehava Gal-On keep their promises to not sit together. But in the Panels poll, they are one seat apart.
Sources in Labor have also hinted that bringing Arab parties into the coalition is not in the cards.
Liberman has shifted leftward to the point that Israelis have difficulty putting him on the political map. The poll found that 48% believe he is right-wing, 22% said Center-Right, 9% centrist, 8% Center- Left and 6% Left.
But for a politician who runs under the banner “My word is my bond,” it is unlikely his bond will be broken – even if it would be the only way to prevent Netanyahu from forming a government.
Then again, there is another possibility: a national unity government – what Europeans call a grand coalition. Add Labor to Netanyahu’s 70 MKs, and he has the wide coalition he speaks about.
He and the MKs closest to him repeatedly say the race is between Netanyahu and Herzog. The reason they say so is the Likud wants to take votes away from other parties on the Right, by scaring right-wing voters into thinking Herzog will be prime minister if they don’t vote Likud.
But since Yesh Atid cannot sit with the haredim, and the haredim reportedly have been promised they are in, Labor is the only Center-Left party that can join a Netanyahu- led government. Herzog and Livni have been careful not to rule out such a scenario.
Sources close to Netanyahu have said the possibility of a national unity government has never come up in recent conversations with the prime minister. But he has always sought a prominent left-winger to defend him around the world, and Herzog could do it well.
Theoretically, if Netanyahu suffers a bad enough defeat and is forced to quit, Likud could find its way into a Labor-led coalition.
That could happen if the only party leaders who recommend to Rivlin that Netanyahu form the government are the prime minister himself and Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett.
Then again, between now and then, parties can join together and split apart. Politicians will rise and fall. New stars will join that can change the polls completely.
Each party’s strategists will attempt to influence the public with political spin that can outdo the best dreidel. Predictions matter little when none of the parties’ lists are dry and ready.
By the time all these scenarios come into play, Hanukka will have been long-forgotten; even Passover will pass. But some time after Independence Day, Israel will have a new government.
Its stability will determine how soon the candidates will have to go back on the campaign trail yet again.