TIME Israel

Netanyahu’s Likud Wins Israeli Election

A resounding victory

(TEL AVIV) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party scored a resounding victory in the country’s election, final results showed Wednesday, a stunning turnaround after a tight race that had put his lengthy rule in jeopardy.

With nearly all the votes counted, Likud appeared to have earned 30 out of parliament’s 120 seats and was in a position to build with relative ease a coalition government with its nationalist, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies. Such a government would likely put Israel at odds with the international community over Palestinian statehood and continue to clash with the White House over hard-line policies.

The election was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has governed the country for the past six years. Recent opinion polls indicated he was in trouble, giving chief rival Isaac Herzog of the opposition Zionist Union a slight lead. Exit polls Tuesday showed the two sides deadlocked but once the actual results came pouring in early Wednesday, Likud soared forward. Zionist Union wound up with just 24 seats.

Even before the final results were known, Netanyahu declared victory and pledged to form a new government quickly.

“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for the Likud,” Netanyahu told supporters at his election night headquarters. “I am proud of the people of Israel, who in the moment of truth knew how to distinguish between what is important and what is peripheral, and to insist on what is important.”

Netanyahu focused his campaign primarily on security issues, while his opponents instead pledged to address the country’s high cost of living and accused the leader of being out of touch with everyday people. Netanyahu will likely look to battle that image by adding to his government Moshe Kahlon, whose upstart Kulanu party captured 10 seats with a campaign focused almost entirely on bread-and-butter economic issues. Kahlon is expected to become the country’s next finance minister.

A union of four largely Arab-backed factions became Israel’s third largest party — with 14 seats — and gave Israel’s Arab minority significant leverage in parliament for the first time.

Herzog, who appeared poised only days ago to stage a coup, conceded defeat, saying that he called Netanyahu and offered him congratulations. He signaled that he would not join forces with Netanyahu and would rather head to the opposition.

“I think that at this moment what Israel needs most of all is another voice, a voice that offers an alternative and a voice that tells it the truth,” he said outside his Tel Aviv home.

Netanyahu’s return to power for a fourth term likely spells trouble for Mideast peace efforts and could further escalate tensions with the United States.

Netanyahu, who already has a testy relationship with President Barack Obama, took a sharp turn to the right in the final days of the campaign, staking out a series of hard-line positions that will put him on a collision course with much of the international community.

In a dramatic policy reversal, he said he now opposes the creation of a Palestinian state — a key policy goal of the White House and the international community. He also promised to expand construction in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.

The Palestinians, fed up after years of deadlock with Netanyahu, are now likely to press ahead with their attempts to bring war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court. Renewed violence could also loom.

Netanyahu infuriated the White House early this month when he delivered a speech to the U.S. Congress criticizing an emerging nuclear deal with Iran. The speech was arranged with Republican leaders and not coordinated with the White House ahead of time.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was confident strong U.S.-Israeli ties would endure far beyond the election, regardless of the victor.

TIME Israel

Netanyahu Defeats Main Rival in Israeli Vote

Focus quickly shifted toward the formation of a coalition government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party handily beat its main rival in Tuesday’s elections, official results showed as Israelis awoke Wednesday morning, despite initial exit polls that suggested a closer vote.

Likud won 30 of the 120 seats up for grabs in Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, over the Zionist Union’s 24 seats, according to the elections committee’s tally. That’s a far cry from Tuesday evening, when exit polls conducted by three major Israeli television channels had indicated a relative tie, at 27, between the two parties.

Netanyahu declared victory in an early morning speech as the votes were still being counted.

“Dear friends, against all odds we have achieved a great victory for Likud, for the national camp which is headed by Likud, for our people,” he told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv. “Now we must form a strong and stable government that will care for the security and welfare of all of Israel’s citizens.”

The results are a disappointment for the Zionist Union — headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni — which for weeks had shown a four-seat lead over Netanyahu in various opinion polls, and for members of a nonpartisan campaign calling itself V15 (Victory 2015), which declared its main goal was to get Israelis out to vote for any party that would dislodge Netanyahu from power.

When, at one point in the night, the Zionist camp appeared to have won an equal number of seats to Likud, it too claimed to have received a mandate to form a new government. Herzog, speaking a little after midnight, told his supporters that the result of the election would “bring Labor back into power” after 16 years on the sidelines.

“This is a big victory for the Labor Party, which hasn’t done this well since Yitzhak Rabin won in 1992,” he said. He called on the “social parties” — all those who campaigned to help Israelis weather the skyrocketing cost of living here — to unite under him to form “a real reconciliation government.”

Herzog called Netanyahu on Wednesday to congratulate him on his victory, but would not say whether the Zionist Union would consider joining a Netanyahu-led government.

With more than 99% of the votes counted, focus is quickly shifting toward the formation of the coalition government. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had announced late Tuesday night that he would call on the two leading parties to construct a government. With Likud enjoying such a clear lead, it’s likely Rivlin will put it to Netanyahu to form one.

After each election, Israel’s President is charged with inviting the head of one or more of the largest parties to form a coalition. But in Israel’s fractured political system, being the party with the most votes does not necessarily mean having enough votes to cobble together a government. Given the bitter invective Likud and the Zionist Union have used against each other in the past few months, however, it is difficult to envision them coming together to form a unity government with a rotating premiership, as had been done in decades past. It is possible, however, that Netanyahu will have made so many enemies of late that he’ll find it tough to get to the seats he needs to form a coalition.

As Likud and the Zionist Union now start totaling up their potential partners’ projected Knesset seats to see if they might be able to come up with the right sum to present a ruling coalition — a minimum of 61 of the 120 — centrist parties become the cornerstones for building a new government. In this, all eyes are on Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud party member and government minister under Netanyahu who broke away to form the Kulanu party. Exit polls showed it winning nine or 10 seats, with the latter as the final count. While that only makes it the fifth-largest party to be elected, Kahlon’s preferences can either make or break a coalition on offer by either Netanyahu or Herzog.

But Kahlon already rejected an eleventh-hour promise from Netanyahu to be Finance Minister in favor of an endorsement, saying the Premier has too often failed to keep his word. The waters were further muddied on the eve of the elections when a fabricated ad — essentially an audio-clip job put out by the Likud campaign — made Kahlon sound as if he were fully behind Netanyahu. Supreme Court Judge Salim Joubran, who heads the Central Elections Committee, forced Likud to stop using the ad and ordered it to pay a fine of about $5,000. Kahlon said the tape was deceitful and added he could he no longer support a party that “lost its compassion and its social way,” according to the website of the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “That is exactly why I left the Likud.”

Getting slightly more votes than Kahlon was the Yesh Atid party, clocking in at 11 seats. Its leader, Yair Lapid, was Netanyahu’s Finance Minister in the last government but was fired in November when he opposed the Prime Minister on several fronts, from economics to a controversial “nation-state bill” that opponents say is a step back for Israeli democracy. Given that his falling-out was part of the reason Netanyahu dissolved his government and called for new elections in December, he doesn’t make for a promising coalition material either.

The third-largest party, meanwhile, is the Joint List, a recently unified slate of several Arab parties. This party might join in a government led by Herzog — if at all. In the hours before the polls, Netanyahu released a video and a tweet urging his supporters to go out to vote because the “the Arabs are voting in droves,” and saying that “left” had been “busing Arabs to the polls.” The message led to charges of racist campaigning from Netanyahu’s critics and made it unlikely that Netanyahu could find a way to mend fences with Israel’s Arab minority, or the Palestinians, for that matter. On the eve of the elections, he said that if he remains Prime Minister there would be no Palestinian state.

Despite all of that, many analysts said Netanyahu still looked like he had the upper hand in being able to form a coalition. Although he moved well ahead of the Zionist Union, he still has many other coalition partners to choose from, including the ultra-Orthodox parties as well as Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which largely represents the interests of West Bank settlers and their hopes of expansion.

Bennett’s party won eight seats compared to the 13 it had in the last Knesset. But the party’s relative strength and Bennett’s alliance with Netanyahu points to a path of expanded settlement growth, something that keeps Israel on a collision course with the international community, including the Obama administration, which has called them a hindrance to the peace process. Bennett has long expressed opposition to a Palestinian state.

“Netanyahu has withstood with most serious challenge he faced in continuing as Prime Minister and at the moment has the better chance of forming a government, though it’s certainly not going to be as easy,” said Yehuda Ben-Meir, a public-opinion expert at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“Netanyahu has to make a major decision: whether he wants to form a small, narrow coalition” of center and right-wing parties, added Ben-Meir, or whether to “form a national unity government based on parity between the two largest parties … which is a surprise because the expectation was that neither one of these would be so high, certainly the Likud. What we can say is that Israel has kept to its tradition of surprises in elections. And that nothing is really clear until all the votes are counted.”

TIME Israel

Israeli Voting Ends in Deadlock

(JERUSALEM) — Voting in Israel’s national election has ended, with exit polls showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a virtual tie with a center-left challenger.

Exit polls conducted by the country’s three major TV stations late Tuesday gave mixed results, showing an extremely tight race between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and opposition leader Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union.

Two polls showed the parties deadlocked with 27 seats each, and a third gave Likud a slight lead of 28-27.

All showed the centrist newcomer Moshe Kahlon with enough seats to determine who will be the next prime minister. Kahlon, a Likud breakaway, has not said which side he would favor.

Read More: The Kingmaker Who May Decide Israel’s Closely Contested Election

Netanyahu, though, declared victory after the election appeared to give him the upper hand in forming the country’s next coalition government.

In a statement released on Twitter, Netanyahu says that “against all odds” his Likud party and the nationalist camp secured a “great victory.”

TIME Israel

The Kingmaker Who May Decide Israel’s Closely Contested Election

Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu Party could end up holding the key to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fate

Correction appended, March 17

Shmuel Khavilio is cab driver who hasn’t voted in several elections, as his disillusionment with Israeli politicians and their promises has grown. But this time around he is planning to vote — and he’s casting a ballot for a brand-new party that didn’t even exist four months ago.

That party is Kulanu, and its leader, Moshe Kahlon, had been a longtime member of the ruling Likud, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Netanyahu is facing stiffer-than-expected competition on Tuesday as Israelis vote in a national election that the right-wing premier himself called for back in December. Frustrated with dissent within his own government, Netanyahu dissolved it and asked voters to re-elect him and “give me a real mandate to lead the people and the country.”

That doesn’t look likely to happen. Instead, polls suggest voters will hand Likud only about 20 out of the 120 Knesset seats up for grabs, whereas some 24 or more seats are predicted to go to the Zionist Union, headed by Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who as justice minister headed talks with the Palestinians in the last government before falling out with Netanyahu.

Livni isn’t the only Israeli to part ways with the three-time Likud leader whom Israelis roundly refer to as “Bibi.” Netanyahu’s traditional voting base is being drained by parties declaring themselves centrist, such as Kulanu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, as well as those further to the right, such as the Jewish Home party led by economy minister Naftali Bennett, and hardliner Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitanu party.

But Kahlon, a former Minister of Communications who is credited with breaking up the country’s cell phone monopoly and drastically bringing down prices, may be the biggest threat of all to Netanyahu’s pool of voters — and could yet decide the premier’s future.

One of the most prestigious names to join Kahlon’s slate is Michael Oren, who served as Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington until two years ago. In an interview with TIME, Oren says that he was never a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, but had gladly accepted the invitation to help explain Israel’s position in the United States. That included the pivotal issue of Iran’s nuclear program, over which Netanyahu has publicly butted heads with the Obama administration to the point of outright crisis between Jerusalem and Washington. Oren was a key player in many of those discussions in recent years.

“I know better than almost anyone that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an existential threat,” he says by telephone while campaigning for Kulanu in small towns along the coastal plain north of Tel Aviv. “But Israelis overwhelmingly list the price of living in this country and the price of housing as the biggest existential threat of all. My joining this party was an ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ kind of moment.”

That’s a reference, of course, to a popular slogan of the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, when the two Democratic candidates initially looked like a long shot for replacing the incumbent, George H. W. Bush. While salaries here have remained flat, housing and cost-of-living prices have skyrocketed in the last few years. A state auditor’s report released a few weeks ago showed that home prices have jumped by 55 percent and rents by 30 percent from 2008 to 2013, which includes most of Netanyahu’s recent tenure.

Like Clinton, Kahlon comes from a modest background. He’s a child of Libyan immigrants to Israel who was raised in a two-bedroom house with seven children, but went on to earn two higher degrees and take on big business while in the cabinet. It was while Kahlon was on a trip to Washington as a Knesset member that they first met. “He made a big impression on me,” Oren says. “He’s very personable and charismatic – but also very grounded and honest, unlike many politicians I’ve met.”

That’s exactly the sentiment that is getting many average Israelis like Khavilio, the cab driver, out to vote. “It’s just hard to make a living here anymore,” says Khavilio, who finds Kahlon – like him a Jew of Middle Eastern descent – more trustworthy than the others. “Most people I know don’t make it through the month without going into debt. By the time you pay your rent or your mortgage, there’s hardly enough left over to buy food, or to get your kid a pair of sneakers.”

Although Oren has chosen a party in fierce competition with his former boss, he says that wasn’t the intention. Ever the diplomat, he treads lightly on any criticism aimed directly at Netanyahu, and with good reason: they may yet end up working together. Even if Likud doesn’t win the most seats, the current prime minister could still end up being invited by Israel’s president to form a coalition of centrist and right-wing parties that would naturally include Kulanu.

In that configuration, Kahlon would almost certainly ask for the finance ministry; in fact, Netanyahu has already offered it to him, but Kahlon declined, saying he had no interest in committing to a government with a man who had failed to keep his word on many occasions. It’s also possible that Kahlon, as the new “kingmaker” who is willing to pair up with a left or right-leaning premier, will demand the foreign minister position for Oren.

But when the election stations close at 10 p.m. on Tuesday and the first exit polls by Israel’s three leading station release their unofficial results, the demands on the leading vote-getters will be immense, and the game of coalition building will begin. It’s a particularly difficult election to call, analysts say, because Israeli voters have been surprised before. Netanyahu’s first victory, in 1996, came the morning after exit polling had predicted a win for Shimon Peres and the Labor Party. And in 2009, Livni’s Kadima party won the highest number of seats — but it soon became clear that only Netanyahu could put together a government because most of the available Knesset seats were center or right-wing.

If the same thing happens again, Kahlon’s role could be decisive. But hours before polls close, no one is placing bets on what might happen. “The Israeli electorate has become very volatile. There are too many voters up for grabs,” says Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Usually in a Western democracy, you’re talking 10 to 20 percent to voters who are willing to switch parties. Here it’s anywhere between two to three times as much, and you’re speaking about tremendous volatility in the last couple of days.”

Israeli voters, he says, seem to be in a search for something they still haven’t found. “Voters are looking for someone who’s going to make them feel better off in terms of security and deliver – or someone who will make them feel better economically and deliver,” he says. “Everybody is fighting for every vote.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the incumbent U.S. President during the 1992 election. It was George H. W. Bush.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 17

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe?

By Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic

2. The divorce rate is falling. Here’s why that’s bad news for some Americans.

By Sharadha Bain in the Washington Post

3. Across the planet, cost and class determine who lives and who dies.

By Paul Farmer in the London Review of Books

4. The U.S. should consider joining — rather than containing — the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

By Elizabeth C. Economy in Asia Unbound

5. Trade unions in Cleveland will launch a “pre-apprentice” program to prepare high school kids for construction jobs.

By Patrick O’Donnell in the Cleveland Plain Dealer

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Israel

American Donors Give to the Israeli Right

Naftali Bennett, chairman of the right-wing party Jewish Home party, has raised more money from American donors than Israel's Prime Minister

As nuclear talks with Iran continue in Switzerland and with the fallout over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress still in the air, American politicians and government officials are watching this week’s election in Israel even more closely than usual.

And they’re not the only ones. American citizens donated over a million dollars to candidates involved in primary races in the run-up to the general election, according to records published by the State Comptroller of Israel. The donations were for primaries only because candidates in Israel are not legally permitted to use foreign campaign donations in the general election. Figures are officially reported in Israeli shekels and have been converted to their U.S. dollar amounts for this article.

While Jewish voters regularly prefer Democratic politicians at home by at least 30 percentage points, the candidate who raised the most money from American donors was Naftali Bennett, chairman of the right-wing party the Jewish Home. Members of Netanyahu’s party, Likud, received the more U.S. money as a whole than any other party. The Labor party, which stands a strong chance of ousting Netanyahu, received far less than either Likud or Jewish Home.

TIME Israel

Scenes from Election Day in Israel

Millions of Israelis voted in parliamentary elections March 17, in a contest widely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is hoping to be granted a fourth term in office

TIME Israel

Everything You Need to Know About Israel’s Elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's position may be on the line Tuesday

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early elections in December, amid opposition within his coalition government, he was poised to comfortably win a new mandate. The three-term premier rode a wave of home support during Israel’s 50-day summer war in Gaza, and though his approval ratings had since dipped, his job appeared safe.

A lot can change in three months, let alone weeks. In early March, Bibi, as he is popularly known, addressed a joint meeting of Congress and blasted an emerging nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers, saying it “paves Iran’s path to the bomb.” The speech left Israel divided two weeks before the vote.

When Israelis go to the polls Tuesday, Netanyahu will face an empowered opposition that threatens to displace him. Recent polling shows his conservative Likud Party trailing the Zionist Union, a hybrid of the center-left Labor and the small centrist Hatnua. Still, Netanyahu has a good shot at staying in power if he can cobble together at least 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and form a coalition government, but there’s no guarantee.

Here’s what you have to know about the elections.

Who’s running?

Netanyahu, 65, would become Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister if he wins a fourth term and serves until July 2019. His campaign has largely focused on national security issues, playing into the concerns of the country’s right-wing majority. On Monday, on the eve of the vote, he withdrew his support for a two-state solution, saying a Palestinian state would provide “attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel.”

His strongest challenger is Isaac Herzog, the son of a former President, a longtime politician who leads the Labor Party. Days after Netanyahu called for the early elections, Herzog, 54, announced an alliance with Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni, formerly of Netanyahu’s cabinet, giving the combined Zionist Union a lead over Likud. The alliance’s campaign has largely skirted security issues and instead focused on domestic worries like housing shortages and the high cost of living, which surveys show high on Israelis’ list of concerns. Herzog and Livni had agreed to rotate the premiership if their Zionist Union comes out ahead but, in a sign of Herzog’s rising popularity, the leadership agreed to drop that plan and back the soft-spoken Labor leader for premier.

In a surprise move, Israel’s four Arab parties joined forces for the first time (despite a host of internal divisions). Led by Ayman Odeh, a 40-year-old lawyer from Haifa, the Joint List is poised to become the third-largest faction in the Knesset on the vote of Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens. Odeh has said his alliance won’t join any government, but he could tip the balance if he recommends that the President nominate Herzog to form a government.

Neither of the leading parties is polling more than 25 seats out of the 120, so the next government will largely hinge on smaller parties that might link up for a broader coalition. Look for both Netanyahu and Herzog to court Moshe Kahlon, whose centrist Kulanu party has seen a surge in support over the last month and is now polling around 10 seats. Though he was a former Netanyahu ally in Likud, Kahlon hasn’t ruled out backing the Zionist alliance.

What do the opinion polls say?

The Zionist alliance holds a slight lead over Likud, with 25 seats to Likud’s 21 (the exact numbers vary, depending on which poll you look at).

Netanyahu is losing in the opinion polls. Does that mean he’s out?

Far from it. For one, polling has been notoriously unreliable in Israel, where up to 20% of voters may still be undecided.

But the elections are also only the first step in forming the next government. Since no party will win a majority of seats (nor has one since 1949), the leading parties will likely have to compose a coalition government—that’s where the smaller parties come in. Going by the Israeli system, current President Reuven Rivlin will consult with all parties to nominate a member of the Knesset with the best chance of forming a coalition as Prime Minister.

Netanyahu appears to have a better chance at forming a government, if the current polling holds, thanks to the presumed support of the substantial bloc of right-wing and religious parties. But a Herzog government, with help from Kulanu, could also theoretically align itself with others from across the spectrum to come out ahead.

The leading parties could also conceivably come together to assemble what’s known as a National Unity government. Herzog and Netanyahu might decide to shelve their differences and participate in a shared government, rotating the premiership, as Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir did from 1984 to 1988.

What if Netanyahu loses?

A Herzog-led government would likely focus on the Zionist Union’s campaign pledge to tackle the rising cost of living. While the alliance has pledged to resume talks with the Palestinians after the last round of negotiations on statehood collapsed in April, the economy would remain its priority.

What if he wins?

If Netanyahu aligns with the right-wing and religious parties to forge a fourth term, his government is expected to continue its focus on national security issues, emphasizing the rise and threat of Islamist militants along Israel’s borders, just as he did when declaring that he no longer supported a Palestinian state. Netanyahu will also face an uphill battle repairing ties with President Barack Obama after his controversial address to Congress, during which he criticized the emerging “bad deal” with Iran over its nuclear program.

So when will we know?

Israeli television will begin to broadcast exit polls after 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET).

Once Rivlin nominates someone to form a government, they will have 42 days to do so before the President selects someone else to try. If he or she fails, anyone in the parliament can propose a majority coalition. In the unlikely (and unprecedented) scenario both attempts come up short, it’s back to the polls.

Read next: Netanyahu Vows No Palestinian State While He’s Prime Minister

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Israel

Netanyahu Vows No Palestinian State While He’s Prime Minister

ISRAEL-POLITICS-VOTE-NETANYAHU-FRANCE-JEWS
Jack Guez—AFP/Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during a campaign meeting with members of Israel's French-Jewish community on March 10, 2015, in Netanya, Israel

Reverses earlier support of two-state solution on eve of general elections

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared there will be not be a Palestinian state so long as he is Prime Minister, reversing his prior support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the eve of Israel’s parliamentary elections.

“I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands, is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel,” the three-term Prime Minister said, according to the New York Times translation of the interview posted to website NRG on Monday.

When the reporter asked if that meant he would not establish a Palestinian state were he to win re-election, Netanyahu replied, “Correct.”

Netanyahu, whose Likud party is trailing behind the center-left Zionist Union alliance, once expressed support for the idea of two-state solution in a 2009 speech.

Read more at the New York Times.

TIME Israel

Is This the Man Who Could Beat Netanyahu and Become Israel’s Next PM?

Isaac Herzog has maintained a lead in opinion polls but winning the election is not enough to become prime minister

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to dissolve his government last November and call for new elections he didn’t expect a formidable challenge from the Labor party leader Isaac Herzog.

Herzog is the closest thing Israel has to a patrician politician. His father, Chaim Herzog, was an Israeli army general and the sixth president of Israel and his grandfather was the first chief rabbi of Ireland. And while the 54-year-old Isaac Herzog has served four times as a government minister since 2004, few have seen him as having the charisma some believe is necessary to be Israel’s prime minister.

But opinion polls show Herzog, who heads an electoral list which combines the Labor and Hatnua parties, with a clear lead. At least three polls released Friday—the last day polling can be released before the March 17 vote—showed Herzog’s Zionist Union with a four-seat lead in the Knesset over Netanyahu and his Likud party.

If these numbers remain true on election day, it will be a major achievement for Labor, which has not won an election in 16 years despite dominating Israeli politics before that.

Herzog appears confident that he can beat Netanyahu. He is attacking the three-term prime minister on his foreign policy; Netanyahu’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue, tensions with the Obama administration and lack of progress with the Palestinians. And on economic problems that trouble average Israelis as much as foreign policy.

“Housing costs have risen 70%. How come the social gaps have grown so substantially?” Herzog said in a press conference with foreign journalists in Jerusalem. “Netanyahu has failed on security, and on all these economic issues. He has to answer these questions, but he hasn’t. He’s run away from any debate with me.”

Election ads pump up Herzog’s wide-ranging experience in government and his service as a major in the Intelligence Corps; a history in an elite unit of the Israeli army is still considered vital for anyone who would serve as prime minister. Eyal Zisser, the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, served with Herzog in the army. In those days, he was considered a “mensch,” says Zisser – Yiddish for a good guy – who was modest despite his political family.

“In many cases, when someone is from a well-known family, you know it,” says Zisser. “But in his case, no one could observe it because he didn’t show it off. He was always trying to prove himself not based on family affiliation but on his own merits, and people liked that about him.”

Unlike his father, who rose to the rank of general, Herzog left the army after four years to study law and then joined the family law firm. The pedigree aside, he didn’t necessarily act like someone who was destined to be prime minister. “He’s not full of charisma, and still, in his own quiet way, he’s a very smart politician,” says Zisser.

Herzog’s advisors have tried to turn his lack of charisma into an advantage. Herzog has focused on issues rather than trying to get ‘Bougie’ — as he’s popularly know here — to compete with the charisma of ‘Bibi’, as the prime minister is nicknamed.

“People are outgrowing that notion[the need for a charismatic prime minister],” says Asaf Eisin, a campaign strategist for Herzog’s Zionist Union. “We’ve heard people asking over and over again where did all those charismatic leaders bring them, and longing for a leader who works for them. It’s not about making speeches, it’s about actions. People have identified in Herzog a man who works for the country first, not himself. He can put his ego aside, and people want that.”

Herzog told reporters he is interested in resuming peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which collapsed last April. He said he would halt all West Bank construction outside of the major “settlements blocs” that Israel would like be annexed to Israel in a peace deal. But success in resuming talks would depend on how ready the Palestinian Authority is to negotiate with him. “I do not know what kind of mood I’ll find after the 17th of March,” he said.

Even if he emerges as the winner of the general election, Herzog is not guaranteed the job of prime minister. He still has to create a coalition by uniting a group of parties with sometimes contradictory positions. And that takes different skills from winning an election. In the 2009 election, Herzog’s running mate Tzipi Livni emerged as the leader of the largest party but only Netanyahu could form a government.

But Herzog will have an added advantage this time. He hails from an Irish family and the election takes place on St Patrick’s Day.

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