Israeli voters head to the polls on Tuesday to decide which political parties will fill the 120 seats of the 20th Knesset, and–indirectly–who will form the next government. The Zionist Union–a bloc of left and centrist parties–has seen its modest lead grow in recent days. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a “gevalt” campaign (a Yiddish expression of alarm), warning supporters he will lose unless they turn out to vote for his Likud Party over the alternatives.
The opposition is motivated by the prospect of replacing Netanyahu and bringing the left back to power for the first time since 2001, when the Oslo peace process collapsed after Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat turned down Israel’s most generous offer and launched the bloody terrorist campaign known as the second intifada. Netanyahu has focused on security, warning that terrorism and Iran are both advancing, and that Israel must resist international pressure to give in.
In the closing hours of the campaign, Netanyahu promised that the Palestinians would not achieve a state on his watch. The pledge was viewed as a somewhat desperate election-eve ploy to attract the support of jaded conservative voters, especially since Netanyahu tried to appease U.S. President Barack Obama in 2009 by supporting a Palestinian state. He may also have been backed into a corner by reports in recent days that he had been prepared to make deep compromises.
His rivals, perhaps feeling nervous as Netanyahu consolidated his support, made a late shift of their own. Originally, the Zionist Union had been formed on the basis of a rotation agreement between Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua Party leader Tzipi Livni. But on Monday, Livni indicated that she would be willing to give up her turn as Prime Minister if it would help the Zionist Union lead a government–either on its own or in a national unity arrangement with the Likud.
The outcome is completely unknown. Netanyahu is a slight favorite to retain power, only because the Israel’s left-wing parties do not have enough projected seats between them to form a majority on their own.
However, if the Zionist Union wins by a decisive margin–perhaps four seats or more–then President Reuven Rivlin may feel compelled to offer that party the first crack at government. (Rivlin is a veteran Likud member, though he and Netanyahu have a bitter personal history.)
Americans–and the world–will wait, and watch, with interest. A loss for Netanyahu would be seen as a victory for Obama after years of clashes, even though the Zionist Union does not differ from the Likud with regard to Iran.
In his 2012 book The Israel Test, author George Gilder called Netanyahu a man of “central importance” to Israel and to the U.S. Yet, like Winston Churchill–to whom Netanyahu is often compared–his example will have to outlive his career, now or later.