An overnight storm has given way to clear skies and warm sunshine, drawing crowds to the beachfront. It's Saturday, so much of Tel Aviv has closed down for the Sabbath, but here it's abuzz with activity: couples jogging, teenagers playing volleyball, families converging on the cafes. Yet even in this lazy haven from the stresses of daily life in Israel's biggest city, politics is firmly on people's minds. Party workers are out in force and people gather under the awnings to catch the latest news bulletins.
On March 17th Israelis go to the polls in an election that could have a significant bearing on the direction of their country and on the politics of the Middle East. More than a dozen parties are battling for more than 120 seats in the Knesset, and the closely fought campaign has yet to yield a clear frontrunner.
With a week to go, polls show a virtual dead heat between the Likud party of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the centre-left Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. With both set to fall short of a majority, the relative strength of the smaller parties on left and right will determine whether Netanyahu can win a fourth term or whether Israel will have its first Labor prime minister in 14 years.
Sitting in the shade, watching the crowds pass by on the promenade, 29-year-old Sagi Almog and some friends are still weighing up how to vote. “For me the most important thing is that it’s so expensive to live here, to buy houses,” says Almog. “Our parents have apartments and they can live well, but for people our age it’s very tough.”
It’s a sentiment that chimes with the broader themes of a campaign dominated by the state of the Israeli economy, in particular the soaring cost of living and the lack of affordable housing. A report from the state comptroller last month found that house prices had risen by 55 per cent in the last five years while wages lagged far behind. Rent increased by 30 per cent in the same period. The timing of the report was damaging for Netanyahu, whose campaign has been dogged by the issue.
Four days after the report’s publication, dozens of activists pitched tents in the centre of Tel Aviv to protest about the housing shortage for young people, recalling a wave of large social protests that took place in the city in 2011. The Israeli economy is forecast to expand by more than 3 per cent this year, above the 1.2 per cent expected in the euro area, but polls show voters don’t see a correlation between the economy’s resilience and their own fortunes.
While the left has been keen to fight the election on socio-economic terrain, Netanyahu has sought to steer the discussion on to security, where opinion polls show he performs strongly. His controversial address to the US Congress on the Iranian nuclear threat provided a timely platform (if little impact on the polls at home), and he has taken every opportunity to revisit the topic. A Likud TV ad shows him arriving at the home of parents who are going out for the evening: “You asked for a babysitter? You got a Bibi-sitter,” he says.
“Bibi’s going to take it. There’s nobody else,” says Raanan Levi, a middle-aged electrician taking in some fresh air on the beachfront. “We need somebody strong like Bibi. If there was someone else as strong as him, maybe. But right now I’m not sure.”
The election is "unique" in the extent to which security has been marginalised as an issue, says Dr Tamar Herman, a leading pollster and analyst of voter behaviour. Rather, with Netanyahu having been prime minister for the past six years, and nine in total, the election is in large measure a referendum on his leadership, says Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute. That suits the Zionist Union. "It's us or him," says one of its posters.
Last month, the state comptroller released a second report condemning the Netanyahu household for “excessive spending” at both the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem and their private villa in Caesarea. Among its findings was that Netanyahu and his wife Sara spent 92,781 shekels, or about €21,000, on takeaway food in 2011. Israeli television ran live footage of the release of the report, prompting Likud to complain that the media’s focus on “irrelevant minutiae” was designed to bring about a Netanyahu defeat.
Israelis have mixed feelings about Netanyahu. Surveys find little public affection for him, yet he consistently emerges on top when voters are asked who they would like as prime minister. “On one side, if you ask Israelis ‘would you like to see prime minister Netanyahu remain four more years in his position?’ then the majority of respondents say ‘no, we’ve had enough of him’,” says Dr Kenig. “On the other hand, when you ask ‘who do you believe is most suitable to fill the position of prime minister?’ then Netanyahu is ahead by far. This is the schizophrenic Israeli position.”
“He’s a very skilled politician. He’s a survivor. He has very sharp political senses and he makes the right political alliances . . . But if you look at the broader picture, perhaps it’s not Netanyahu’s ability to survive but rather the lack of an attractive alternative.”
For voters on the centre left, the hope is that Herzog, a 54-year-old corporate lawyer sometimes known by his nickname Bougie, will persuade enough people that he is that alternative. Doron Majid and his wife Atara, who live in Haifa but are visiting Tel Aviv, are acutely conscious of the rightward shift in Israeli politics in recent years and feel uneasy about the country's growing isolation. "There is a greater and greater gap between the upper and lower part of the population. And with the Palestinians we're going nowhere," says Doron.
“There’s stagnation, which is only going to lead to trouble,” Atara adds. “People are becoming more nationalistic, more religious, which is a problem, in our opinion.”
Yal Talmor, a 55-year-old life coach who describes herself as a centrist, concurs. “I couldn’t vote for him. He doesn’t represent me,” she says of Netanyahu. “The most puzzling thing in my mind is that everyone says he’s no good but that they’ll vote for him.”
The campaign has been striking for another absence: the occupation of the West Bank, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, has barely registered in debates. Analysts suggest the relative security Israel has enjoyed since the Second Intifada, coupled with a general sense of pessimism about the prospects of a peace agreement, explain the apathy. “Unfortunately for the Palestinians, when they are quiet they are disregarded. When they act vigorously, like in the Second Intifada, they are crushed,” says Dr Herman.
The leading parties have their own reasons to avoid the topic: Netanyahu’s own party is divided on the terms of a possible settlement, while the centre-left feels the economy gives it a better opportunity to connect with voters.
Yet while the issue may not feature on the campaign trail, the outcome of the election could have a significant effect on the peace process. If Netanyahu emerges best placed to form a government, he could face an important choice. He could assemble a right-wing coalition and continue his approach of “not initiating anything, just negotiating the conflict”, as Dr Kenig puts it. “Or he may decide that in his fourth term as prime minister he would like to be remembered as an historic leader who had some impact on Israeli history. He may decide to form a unity government, bring Herzog and Livni in and try and repair Israel’s position within the western democratic word.”
Herzog has pledged to halt building in most West Bank settlements, to repair relations with the White House and to go to Ramallah to seek to restart talks. At a minimum his election would mark a stylistic and symbolic shift.
With a week to go, the sides are finely balanced. A Jerusalem Post poll last weekend put the Zionist Union on 24 seats to Likud's 22. But emerging as the biggest party could be an empty victory; the real prize is the ability to form a stable coalition. "We were hopeful in all the other previous elections, and we were disappointed," says Atara Majid. "So this time we're careful not to be too hopeful."
Runners and riders: Parties seeking seats in the Knesset
More than a dozen parties have realistic hopes of winning seats in the 120-member Knesset in next week’s election. Leading the opinion polls are the Likud, led by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the centre-left Zionist Union, an alliance of Isaac Herzog’s
and former justice minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. Herzog and Livni have said that if the Zionist Union leads the next government they will take turns in the role of prime minister.
A Jerusalem Post opinion poll last weekend put the Zionist Union in the lead on 24 seats to the Likud’s 22. That means the distribution of votes among smaller parties will decide who leads the next government, and the broader race is just as tight: according to the same poll, the left and right, loosely defined, would each have 56 seats.
The right-wing bloc comprises the Likud; Jewish Home, led by start-up multimillionaire Naftali Bennett; the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas, Yachad and United Torah Judaism; and the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, led by foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
On the left are the Zionist Union; the social democrats of Meretz, which emphasises social justice and human rights; Yesh Atid, a secular middle-class party; and the Arab List, a new alliance of Israel's Arab parties.
In that configuration, a key figure could be Moshe Kahlon, leader of the centrist Kulanu, whose support could go either way.
Tomorrow: Ruadhán Mac Cormaic reports from Ariel, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank that is experiencing a property boom