Jerusalem — Every Monday Avinoam Ventura, 71, and a half dozen friends gather at the Neeman coffee shop in the Ramot mall in north Jerusalem, where, over coffee and cake, they share the latest gossip and discuss the latest news.
This week the group of working-class pensioners had a lot to talk about.
On the top of their agenda was this week’s dissolution of the government and scheduling of new elections on March 17.
They debated whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forced new elections to advance his political career, or because he honestly couldn’t work with Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, two of his cabinet ministers and political rivals; and whether the next government will be more or less right wing than the one just dissolved.
The only thing the friends appeared to agree upon was that Netanyahu’s timing isn’t auspicious.
“This absolutely isn’t the time for new elections,” said Ventura, a retired bus driver. “Two years wasn’t enough time to do anything of substance, even though there was a lot on the agenda.”
Ventura had hoped the government would implement several reforms, including Lapid’s initiative to waive the 18 percent Value Added Tax for first-time homeowners, who often have difficulty qualifying for a mortgage. Virtually all goods and services in Israel are subject to VAT, and housing prices in Israel are sky-high.
Ventura’s friend Ephraim Avraham, a 70-year-old retired gardener who used to work at the president’s residence, agreed that “the timing is bad,” but added that “maybe having elections won’t be such a bad thing after all.”
Avraham likened the just-dissolved Knesset to a house without support beams.
“If the people holding the house together can’t work together, the house will collapse. There are so many political parties in the Knesset and they do what’s good for them, not the country.”
Polls taken during the past week suggest the country’s electoral scene is as fragmented as ever, with a dozen parties likely to vie for seats. For a party to enter the 120-seat Knesset it must pass a certain vote threshold. The more votes, the more seats.
Because no party is popular enough to score the majority of seats, the next prime minister will be the one who can cobble together a coalition government with at least 61 seats. But the narrower the majority, the more likely it will be that the coalition will collapse over political differences, just as it did this time.
Pundits say it is way too early to predict who will win the election because it is unclear which candidates and parties will run, and which alliances they will ultimately forge.
“In Israel, as elsewhere, the situation coalesces in the two weeks leading up the election,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, senior research fellow and director at Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
During the previous election, Ben Meir noted, support for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party unexpectedly doubled during the last two weeks.
At the moment “it is hard to know what coalitions will be made,” he said. “Will Avigdor Lieberman [Foreign Affairs minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party] go with Netanyahu or with the center-left bloc? The same with [former Communications Minister] Moshe Kochlon. Will [Labor Party head] Yitzhak Herzog team up with Lapid or with Livni? Lapid, together with Lieberman and Kochlon could have 61 votes.”
Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political scientist who heads the School of Communication at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzilya, agrees that it is too soon to make predictions. But, he believes, based on the current polls, the right-wing appears to have the advantage.
A Dec. 8 Knesset Channel poll showed that a right-wing/religious government led by Netanyahu could potentially garner as many as 74 seats compared to the 46 seats a center-left-Arab (anti-Netanyahu) coalition is likely to muster.
In a Dec. 6 Channel 2 poll, just 30 percent of those polled said they want Netanyahu to be the next prime minister versus 65 percent who do not. But that 30 percent was the highest figure among a list of potential candidates.
“If I was a betting man,” Wolfsfeld said, “I would say the chances of the center-left defeating the right wing is about 25 percent. The haredim only care about support for their educational institutions and that their kids won’t have to serve in the army. The right-wing parties want more settlements.”
Which is not to say that the center-left won’t be able to get its act together.
“It depends on how much the left manages to come together to form a significant political party and agree on a leaders, say [Labor’s] Herzog, Wolfsfeld continued.”
Though unlikely, it’s also possible that the Arab sector, where the turnout is traditionally low, could change the course of the elections.
“If Arabs suddenly decide to come and vote in masses, it could … affect the right’s ability to have a Knesset majority. But Arab youth is so alienated, they usually don’t come out en masse.”
The same is true, though to a lesser extent, of young secular Jewish Israelis.
“The settlers and haredim never have a problem getting votes.” Wolfsfeld said.
This worries Ventura, who fears the haredi parties will form a coalition with the Netanyahu’s Likud party.
“The haredim consume the national budget for their yeshivas while they evade army service. And can someone please tell me why we need a ‘Jewish State law.’ Except to antagonize the Arabs? We already know this is a Jewish country,” Ventura insisted. (He was referring to the so-called nation-state bill that many are saying will put Israel’s Jewish character before its democratic character.)
“What’s wrong with the haredim joining with Bibi?” his friend Avraham retorted. “Why shouldn’t they be in the government this time around?”
Tzipi Cohen, 23-year-old worker in the mall’s toy store, said the Israeli public needs to elect a right-wing government because a left-wing government will try to negotiate with the Palestinians.
“Since the terror attacks started I’ve been afraid to leave home. Israel has tried, over and over, to sit and negotiate with the Palestinians. It wasn’t possible to make peace them then, and it’s not possible to make peace with them now.”
Shriki, the mother of a young child, brings home barely $750 per month after taxes for a 30-hour workweek; she said the economy is also a big concern.
“It’s impossible to make ends meet,” she said.
Sarit Mizrachi, a 25-year-old shopper, said she would like to see “a real upheaval” by the center-left.
“A lot of my friends say they’re too fed up with the country to come out and vote, but I’m going to try to convince them otherwise,” said Mizrachi, who plans to vote for a left-leaning party.
Mizrachi said she is concerned about the high cost of living but even more about the “stalemate with the Palestinians.”
“I don’t know if peace is possible, but the status quo isn’t working. Cliched though it sounds, let’s give peace a chance.”