Days before millions of Israelis head to the election booths, a Channel 2 poll published Friday night revealed that the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livini is set to win 26 seats. Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud trails with a projected 22-seat showing.
Media outlets are forbidden by law from publishing any more poll results before the election - so as we head into Tuesday's election, the Zionist Union appears headed to victory. We should note, however, that the formation of a unity government comprising both leading parties seems quite possible, Netanyahu and Herzog's denials notwithstanding.
If the Zionist Union and Likud don't reach an agreement, and the Zionist Union finds enough third-party support to form the next coalition, Netanyahu's six-year turn as Israel's prime minister will come to an abrupt end. Isaac Herzog would become Israel's thirteenth prime minister, and the first Labor premier since Ehud Barak, who defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999.
If Herzog takes over as prime minister, what can we expect from Israel's foreign policy?
1. In the last year, peace talks with Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority have hit a complete dead end, with relentless mutual attacks in the media between Netanyahu and Abbas. Netanyahu has gone so far as to say Abbas should be blamed for inciting Palestinians to carry out terror attacks in Jerusalem.
Herzog and Livni will do everything in their power to try and restart the delicate peace talks. Livni has held Abbas's trust in the past, and she even met with the Fatah leader in London, without authorization from Netanyahu. In the past few days, the Palestinians have threatened to cut off security ties with Israel - Abbas himself recently said that a decision won't be made until after the Israeli election. If Herzog wins and becomes the next prime minister, Herzog and Abbas are very likely to work out a deal on security cooperation. Herzog will also reach out to Abbas to kick peace talks back into gear.
2. Herzog will view a mending of relations with the Obama administration as an essential first step. It is important to note that when Herzog was given the opportunity to travel to Washington with Netanyahu to address the U.S. Congress on Iran, Herzog declined the invitation. Herzog's government is sure to avoid such contentious moves as announcing settlement construction plans while a top U.S. official visits Jerusalem, and Herzog's coalition will go to work immediately to re-establish strong ties with Washington. If Herzog forms a government, an invitation to the White House should soon follow. Netanyahu and Herzog have similar policies toward Iran, but Herzog has said he believes it is important to work with the Obama administration and other Western countries rather than circumventing the president and speaking directly to the U.S. Congress while slamming the Obama administration through the media.
3. The Middle East has been profoundly and permanently reshaped by the Arab Spring, and for the first time in Israel's history, the tiny Jewish state finds itself sharing an array of interests with its Arab neighbors. A Herzog-led government is sure to take an interest in working with those countries, and it would not surprise me to see such an administration cooperate quietly with neighbors that share its goals. Opportunities abound: In the past month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi declared Hamas a terrorist organization and vowed to keep militants in Sinai from attacking Egyptian troops. Security analysts have noted that Israel's security cooperation with Cairo is the closest it has ever been, and it will only get closer so long as Sisi stays in power. Israel's stance on Iran also increasingly dovetails with the views of Arab states. Saudi Arabia doesn't want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons any more than Israel does, and Riyadh could find itself working with Israel to make sure it doesn't happen.
Why is Netanyahu in trouble?
This is a unique election because Israelis seem less interested in discussing security issues. Voters are supporting the parties they believe will help address social inequality. Israelis' manifold concerns include an incredibly high cost of living, a low minimum wage, and a scarcity of job opportunities. Parties such as Yesh Atid, Shas, Koolanu, and Zionist Union have dedicated more time on the campaign trail to social issues than to security issues. Meanwhile Netanyahu's main focus continues to be the Iranian threat and the security concerns emanating from Hezbollah in the Golan Heights and Hamas in Gaza.
A Yesh Atid campaign worker who asked to remain anonymous told RealClearWorld: "For the first time in many elections, the Israeli public's main concerns are not security issues, but rather cost of living and other crucial social issues. As a result, we are seeing Likud drop in the polls, as Israelis believe Netanyahu cannot help with any key social problems. "
Finally, it is important to discuss the significance of the Arab Joint List. The list brings Israeli Arab parties Balad, Hadash, Ta'al, and United Arab List, as well as members of the Islamic Movement, under the same umbrella. The decision to join efforts was a strategic response to the raised voting threshold parties must reach to sit in the Israeli Knesset. Most polls show the Arab Joint List notching 11-14 seats.
The party is led by Ayman Odeh, a charismatic, moderate politician. Odeh has never sat in the Knesset, but he did serve as Hadash's secretary general starting in 2006. The Arab Joint List has repeatedly vowed not to sit in any government led by Netanyahu or Herzog, which means that they will sit in the opposition.
So why are they so important in this election? If there is a unity government, there is a very good chance that the the Arab Joint List would be left with the most seats in the opposition. Odeh could then be named head of the opposition - the first time in Israeli history an Arab party would fill that role, and the first time an Arab would hold such a position.
What concerns many right-wing and even centrist politicians is that the head of the opposition is given several intelligence briefings by Israel Defense Forces personnel - politicians worry about what the Arab Joint List would do with this classified information.