Haifa – As Israel’s right-wing Likud and the centre-left Zionist Union parties are neck and neck in the polls, experts say the electoral campaigns reflect the country’s growing divisions towards Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governance.
Netanyahu’s Likud had for weeks been tied with the Zionist Union coalition at a projected 23 seats each. Yet, a poll, conducted one week before the elections by Israel’s Channel 2, expects that the Zionist Union will gain 25 seats to Likud’s 21.
The elections were announced when Netanyahu sacked Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid over disagreements stemming from the controversial Jewish-state bill, a proposed law that defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people”.
During a recent visit to Jerusalem, where tensions have soared between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian residents since last summer, Netanyahu vowed to squash unrest and continue building Jewish-only settlements if he wins the elections.
“Unlike Tzipi Livni, who condemns our building in Jerusalem, and unlike [Zionist Union co-leader Isaac] Herzog, who will allow the establishment of a second terrorist state in Judea and Samaria, we will preserve a secure and united Jerusalem forever,” he proclaimed.
The Jewish Home (Habayit Hayehudit), a right-wing Zionist party that supports unilaterally annexing large swaths of the occupied West Bank, is currently projected to gain 12 seats.
wins, and I expect he will, these are the last elections he will win. On the other side of the political map, that means that the Israeli centre-left and left are still nowhere near getting back on their feet.”]
The Joint Arab List, a coalition of four Arab-majority parties, is expected to take 13 seats, as is Yesh Atid, the centrist party headed by former Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid.
“Israel traditionally has had a high voter turnout,” Dahlia Scheindlin, an independent pollster and writer at 972 Magazine, told Al Jazeera. “The last elections saw one of the higher turnouts in recent years, but it is not that high for Israel. From 1949 till 1999, turnout for national elections was an average of 80 percent.”
MK Dov Lipman, a member of the Yesh Atid party, summed up the elections as “a referendum on Netanyahu”, adding that a large percentage of Israelis are still polling as undecided.
“For some people, it’s his failure in the security realm,” he told Al Jazeera. “For others, it’s his failure in the economic realm. It has become very personal. There is a very strong and large sentiment hoping for some kind of change.”
On March 7, more than 35,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to call for Netanyahu’s defeat.
Dubbed Israel Wants Change, the demonstration hosted speakers such as former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
As Netanyahu’s approval rating gradually dropped, partially due to a recent state comptroller’s report about his lavish lifestyle, the Likud party was also hit hard by the emergence of Kulanu, a new breakaway party expected to draw on votes that would have otherwise gone to Likud and the ultra-orthodox Shas party.
In addition to the prime minister’s perceived failures in the realm of economic and social issues, Scheindlin argued that Israel’s 51-day war on Gaza last summer has also “harmed Netanyahu’s image in the eyes of many voters”.
“It means that Netanyahu is not quite as strong in his image as Mr Security as he presents himself,” she said. “Security was the thing that Netanyahu had going for him, but now you often hear people say that there weren’t any serious achievements from the war.”
Ben Harel, a 28-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, expressed concern that another Netanyahu-led government could lead to a further spike in living costs and more conflict with the Palestinians. Explaining that his views fall somewhere between the leftist Zionist party Meretz and the socialist Hadash, Harel noted that he still has not decided for which party he will vote.
“For me, economic issues affect me most. I live in Tel Aviv, but throughout my travels across Israel I see that the economy is the concern of most people,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he nonetheless expects Netanyahu to lead the next government.
Dimi Reider, an Israeli journalist and researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, also doubts that growing opposition to Netanyahu will translate into his ouster on election day. “Netanyahu is still the devil we know,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Despite making very bad decisions and programmes, among them destructive economic policies and issues with the Palestinians, most Israelis don’t regard him as a particularly bad prime minister,” Reider explained.
“Most Israelis see very little reason to change the incumbent. If he wins, and I expect he will, these are the last elections he will win,” Reider remarked. “On the other side of the political map, that means that the Israeli centre-left and left are still nowhere near getting back on their feet.”
Yet the Zionist Union remains hopeful. Candidate Revital Swid, a criminal defence lawyer from Ranaana, argued that Israelis want a major change from the last six years of Netanyahu’s policies.
“That is bringing people out of their homes to vote,” Swid told Al Jazeera. “There are problems in education, housing, security and especially the economy.”
“What we’ve seen during nine years of Netanyahu’s governance is that we’re rolling down a hill,” she said. “If he’s elected again, it will only get worse. The prime minister has not taken a decision on any of the issues that Israel is dealing with.”
“We will have a strong showing in the Zionist Union,” she said. “All day we meet young people in universities, schools, and in the streets, and we feel that everyone is eager for improvement. We need at least three seats more than the Likud so that we can build the government.”
“We are not talking about making a deal with Likud after the elections because we believe that Herzog will be the prime minister,” she added. “We will be in the government without the Likud.”
Nonetheless, some analysts have predicted the elections will result in a national unity government agreement between Likud and the Zionist Union – an idea that is unpopular with Israeli voters.
According to a poll conducted by Israel’s Army Radio, 53 percent of Jewish Israelis oppose a joint Netanyahu-Herzog government; only 23 percent support the idea.
Yesh Atid’s Dov Lipman pointed out that a national coalition government is not set in stone. Asked about the prospect of another Netanyahu-led government, he opined that the worst case scenario could be an alliance between Likud and smaller religious parties.
“That would close the doors on the diplomatic and internal front for meaningful change,” he added. “That’s a scary notion for the future of Israel.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_