One month ago, when I traveled to Israel and Palestine, there was a single, palpable emotion that seemed to hang over the place — hopelessness.
But in the week since right-wing Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired two of his key ministers, paving the way for new parliamentary elections, the mood seems to have perceptively shifted — albeit from hopeless to just a bit less hopeless. The reason: Israelis, particularly those on the center-left, are genuinely optimistic about the possibility that they may soon rid themselves of Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is a unique political figure. He’s won three elections and is Israel’s second longest-serving prime minister, but he is, by and large, unloved. His survival is largely a result of the high marks given to him by voters on security issues and the decade-long aimlessness of his political opposition. Even after this summer’s disastrous Gaza war, few political observers thought he was vulnerable. But his political advantage may be fading as recent polls indicate that 60 percent of Israelis want to see him gone.
Their reasons are many: The Gaza war, increasingly frayed US relations, the ever dwindling prospects of a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, growing international isolation, a stagnant economy, an ever-rising cost of living, and the prime minister’s increasing dalliances with the Israeli far right have bred a sense of malaise and alienated voters who long looked to Netanyahu as a stabilizing force.
Adding to his woes is the fact that his center left opposition, which in the 2013 election was hopelessly divided and basically ceded peace and security issues to Netanyahu, is starting to get its act together. The Labor Party appears revitalized under the leadership of Isaac Herzog, who while charisma-challenged is a far from polarizing figure among Israelis. Although he lacks the security bona fides of Netanyahu, the announcement this week of a unity deal with the peace-minded but hawkish former Likud Party member Tzipi Livni may help protect his right flank. At the very least, Labor looks like a credible, responsible, and confident political party for the first time in a decade.
While pundits have lacerated Herzog for making what seems like a lousy deal with Livni and agreeing to rotate the role of prime minister with her (if elected), the two are currently polling ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud, though narrowly.
The wild card is a new party under the leadership of Moshe Kahlon, who as communication minister deregulated the cell phone industry. It was a move that single-handedly saved ordinary Israelis an estimated total 10 billion shekels, which in cellphone obsessed Israel is no small thing. While Kahlon is a former Likud member, he’s already taken Netanyahu to task for harming Israel’s diplomatic position and said this week when unveiling his party that “the real Likud knows how to concede territory.”
Kahlon, unlike Labor, can actually peel center-right voters away from Netanyahu, and he appears open to joining a Labor-led government. In 2013, the center -left barely missed getting a majority in the Knesset, so if Kahlon can take just a handful of seats away from Likud, he will play a decisive role in who gets to form the next government.
However, while Netanyahu might be unloved, he is still the best bet to head the next government. His coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, who leans ever further right, is projected to pick up seats. Even with Labor’s surge, current polling suggests that Netanyahu could form the next government with a razor-slim right-wing, religious majority.
But here’s why all of this matters for the United States: The future of the two-state solution could be hanging in the balance. A Netanyahu win would make any agreement in the next four years between Israel and the Palestinians practically unimaginable. Netanyahu appears to have little interest in talks, and the Palestinian leadership has even less interest in sitting down with him. His reelection would mean more settlements, more polarization, and a steady move further away from a resolution to the conflict.
A Prime Minister Herzog hardly means peace with the Palestinians is around the corner, but it would likely be the best antidote to the country’s growing sense of unease.
Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. His column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.