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1/27/15 Tension in the North- Election Update

by Marc Schulman

This evening Northern Israel remains tense, after four rockets were fired from Syrian territory at the Golan Heights. The missiles caused no damage and Israel responded by destroying a Syrian Army emplacement. The attack is thought to be a response to Israel’s strike on a convoy of Hezbollah and Iranian officers last week near the border. No one in Israel believes that today’s attack was the end of the story, but most likely one of a number of retaliatory actions that Hezbollah and Iran are planning.

This attack is one in a series of events that have taken place in the past few weeks, seemingly changing the pubic agenda from its focus on domestic issues to focus on issues of national security. Over the past three weeks Israelis have witnessed the terror attacks in Paris, watched the attack on the Hezbollah/Iranian convoy in Syria, experienced the terror attack in Tel Aviv and been embroiled the controversy over Prime Minister Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress on Iran, scheduled to take place a little over one week before the election in Israel. While that speech has been widely disparaged and may be for the moment hurting the standing of the Prime Minister, it has brought back the question of whether Iran will be able to get nuclear weapons into the public consciousness, just the same.

All of these events should have strengthened Prime Minister Netanyahu’s position in the upcoming election. However, recent polling suggest that this has not been the case. In fact, the lead that Labor has over Likud seems to be growing. Polls publicized for the first time last night indicate that the “Center/Left-wing has a slight advantage over Right-wing, and if elections were held today it is more than likely that Yitzhak Herzog would be the next Prime Minister of Israel. Of course, the elections are still seven weeks away and pollsters in Israel have been notoriously unsuccessful at predicting last minute surges (that seem to happen in every election, as the undecided finally make up their minds and vote.)

It would be useful to try to understand why Netanyahu, who is thought of by most Israelis to the most qualified to handle security matters, is not being helped by the supposed shift in pubic discourse. It should be noted that the same polls that show him most capable of handling matters of national security show him nearly the least capable of handling the publics socio-economic concerns. A number of factors appear to be at work at the moment. First and foremost, although the news media has been dominated by discussions on security matters, the Israeli public still seems determined to cast their votes based on their socio-economic concerns. Over the weekend, a poll came out showing that despite events of the past weeks over 50% of the Israeli electorate believe that economic issues will be the key to their votes. Non-Israelis are sometimes astounded by this factor. After all, those looking at us from afar most certainly wonder how people who live in cities that were attacked just this summer by barrages of missiles; a country that people still call for its destruction, can worry more about economic issues than issues of survival?

The answer to that question holds the key to understanding this election. To most Israelis our security situation is just the way things are – almost like the weather, you can talk about it, but you really can’t do much about it.. So, many Israelis believe that, if for the moment there is no way to really impact the issues of war and peace in any meaningful way, then even if Prime Minister Netanyahu might be seen as more capable on issues of security, it’s ultimately not that important at this time. This summer the conventional wisdom was that the war would push Israelis further to the right, that does not seem to be the case. Rather, this past summer’s war has pushed Israelis more towards an apathetic view regarding issues of security – i.e. this is our fate and we will just have to “solider on”. Of course, a further factor molding the current pre-election climate could be the rampart number of corruption and sexual scandals that have enveloped the government. The Likud has held power for most of the last 38 years. After nearly 4 decades in power, voters may be feeling that despite whatever misgivings they might have for the opposition parties, it’s just time for a change. Much can happen in Israel and the Middle East in the next 6 weeks, but however events unfold, the situation is not likely to be boring.

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