TEL AVIV (Reuters) - With opinion polls showing his party holding a narrow but steady lead five days before Israel’s election, opposition leader Isaac Herzog took his campaign to a central Tel Aviv market on Thursday, glad-handing and haggling with eager stallholders.
Street markets are a traditional stronghold of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, but there is the scent of change in the air, with polls indicating that voters are growing fed up with Netanyahu and the right-wing Likud after nine years in power, spread over three terms.
While the race remains tight before the March 17 vote, the latest surveys show Herzog’s centre-left Zionist Union winning 24 or 25 seats in the 120-member Knesset, 3 or 4 seats more than Likud, potentially enough to form a coalition.
“We’re working on it, we’re pressing for it. It’s still a long a way to go but we hope to win,” Herzog told Reuters as he bought a few items in the market, making a show of haggling over some sweet baklava and other pastries.
Asked what he felt had been the deciding factor in the campaign, which Netanyahu led in the early stages, until around 10 days ago, when he made his much-criticized address to the U.S. Congress, Herzog was straightforward.
“Israelis want change,” he said, suggesting Netanyahu’s focus on security and the threat from Iran, rather than the economy and the cost-of-living, had left voters uninspired.
“There are many, many issues (that have shaped the campaign),” he said as security guards formed a phalanx around him and his running mate, Tzipi Livni, forcing back a jostling crowd, while shopkeepers showered the candidates with sweets in a sign of good luck. “That’s why this is a great democracy.”
The son of a former Israeli president, the grandson of one of its most respected rabbis and the nephew of a legendary foreign minister, Herzog, 54, is about as close it gets in Israel to a blue-blood or a national scion.
Despite that, Netanyahu initially made hay against him, casting Herzog as weak, soft on security and someone who would too readily give up land to the Palestinians. Netanyahu always refers to Herzog by his babyish nickname, “Bougie”.
With a reedy voice and small stature, Herzog may appear at first to be an easy target, but he has shown resilience on the campaign trail and impressed with his sharp intellect, quick wit and an ability to engage on a wide range of issues.
Sitting at a trendy outdoor restaurant in the market, locals said they were ready to vote for him and Livni, a former justice minister and peace negotiator with the Palestinians.
“Herzog may not be the best, but he’s the best there is,” said Hadar Mizrahi, who works for an Israeli NGO.
“It’s a case of anyone but Netanyahu at this stage.”
While Zionist Union appears to have the momentum going into the vote, no party has ever won an outright majority in Israel’s 67-year history, which means coalition formation will be key.
If Herzog and Livni beat Netanyahu by only two or three seats, it may still be possible for Netanyahu to cobble together a coalition, especially as there are more like-minded parties on the right and far-right with which he can form an alliance.
But if the Zionist Union wins by four or more seats, the chances of it being asked by Israel’s president to form a coalition first would rise substantially.
It would then have to try to bring a disparate array of parties, including the centrist Yesh Atid, perhaps some ultra-Orthodox religious groups, a united Arab list and maybe a breakaway faction of Likud into its camp.
That is a tall order, but not impossible. The best indication that it is a growing possibility comes from Netanyahu, who has said there is a “real danger” he will lose and has urged his traditional base to turn out to vote.
Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Giles Elgood