Modiin, Israel — It was supposed to be a preaching-to-the-choir type of performance. Yitzhak Herzog’s speech Saturday night to a crowd in this middle-class Israeli suburb was targeting a relatively friendly constituency to the Labor Party.
“He’s convincing the convinced,” said Doron Shimony as he waited for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief rival in the March 17 parliamentary election to appear alongside his running mate, former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
And while there was ample enthusiasm for Herzog, Livni and their joint Zionist Union list for the election, it turned out that not everyone was convinced.
“I want to see you as a leader, but something bothers me,” said a woman who said her name was Orly, referring to Herzog, as she inquired about turmoil within the Labor Party over Herzog and Livni’s campaign. “We hear you are having troubles in the party. We want you to be strong in the party. That way we know you will be a strong leader.”
By all accounts, Herzog and the Labor Party find themselves in a campaign with many factors that seem to favor them as the opposition. Israelis are fatigued with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: his job approval rating stands at 29 percent, and his favorability among centrists stands at 20 percent, according to a recent poll by The Times of Israel.
The Israeli leader also faces an unprecedented crisis with the White House and congressional Democrats over a March 3 address to Congress over the Iranian nuclear program. On Monday, reports emerged that the U.S. had started to limit coordination with Israel on the Iran talks. It was said the White House believed Netanyahu had made use of the information in an increasingly hostile campaign against the Obama administration’s handling of the negotiations.
And on Tuesday, the State Comptroller issued a damning report alleging that the prime minister and his family’s expenses were wasteful and excessive from 2010 to 2012 and were unbefitting a public servant.
And yet, Herzog and the Zionist Union seem to be stalled in the polls. After an initial surge following Herzog’s surprise alliance with Livni, the Labor leader remains locked more or less in a tie with Likud, while most polls suggest that Netanyahu would have an easier time forming a coalition. The same polls show Herzog trailing the prime minister by a large gap in “suitability” for the post of prime minister.
The problem, say analysts, is that the Zionist Union has failed to put together an effective campaign. Netanyahu appears to control the Israeli media agenda on a daily basis with warnings of a nuclear deal with Iran, videos alleging that Herzog’s election would enable ISIS to reach Jerusalem, or accusations that the mainstream media wants to topple him. The Labor leader has failed to grab away the media spotlight. The prime minister has succeeded in keeping the spotlight on national security threats like Iran and ISIS, while intentionally ignoring discussion of the economy on which he is more vulnerable, say observers.
“I’ve seen good campaigns and I’ve seen bad campaigns in my time, but I’ve never seen no campaign,” said Eyal Arad, a campaign strategist who worked on elections for both Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu, referring to the Labor campaign.
In a recent focus group among first-time voters for the news web site Walla!, Herzog got the highest “don’t know” rating when participants were asked to say whether they had a favorable or unfavorable view of him.
The opposition candidate suffers from a charisma deficit vis a vis both Netanyahu and Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party. Herzog is also easily ridiculed for his scratchy voice and a running mate – Livni – who often has a stronger stage presence. Mitchell Barak, a public opinion expert who conducted the focus group for Walla!, said that participants giggled at a televised speech in which Herzog chanted “mahapach,” Hebrew meaning a political upset of an incumbent.
“He doesn’t have the same physical presence that others have; he certainly has the pedigree,” said Barak, referring to the fact that Herzog’s father was a former president of Israel. “He hasn’t introduced himself to the Israeli voter, and [explained] why he is better than Netanyahu. He’s not made a good case for himself.”
The Zionist Union started the campaign with billboards with photos of Herzog and Livni — they have agreed to take turns as prime minister if they are successful — with the slogan, “It’s Us or Him” — a reference to Netanyahu. There are promises of “zero impoverished senior citizens” within a year and “free land” for housing.
Shmuel Rosner, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, said Herzog’s problems don’t stem from the campaign as much as the policies represented by Labor — mostly notably the failed Oslo peace process — that are perceived as out of touch with the Israeli public.
“The fact of the matter remains that for Labor to get more votes, they have to have more popular policies. Either [voters] don’t think the Labor Party is good enough, or the party is seen as too left wing, or Herzog is seen as not a leader,” Rosner said. “[The party] has hit a ceiling.”
Indeed, in the party’s online platform there is no mention of peace negotiations, the Palestinians or even a “diplomatic process” like in previous years. Instead, the party platform pledges “a diplomatic horizon” by ending Israel’s isolation, repairing ties with the U.S. and “enlisting the world against terror and against our neighbors.”
Speaking to the crowd in Modiin, Herzog promised an unspecified diplomatic initiative with Israel’s Arab neighbors.
“I can promise 100 percent effort, but can’t promise 100 percent results,” Herzog told the audience. “I also believe that on the other side there are parents who want peace like us. We just have to break psychological barriers.”
In recent days, the Zionist Union has brought in Reuven Adler, a campaign strategist who worked with Ariel Sharon. Adler seems to have given the campaign a more aggressive stance with negative online advertising against Netanyahu. The campaign released a video mocking an online video of Sara Netanyahu telling an interior decorator of the dilapidated state of the prime minister’s residence. It also released a slogan warning Israelis “only a sucker votes for Netanyahu.”
“One of the reasons why [Yesh Atid leader Yair] Lapid has been doing well in the past few weeks, while Labor has been dithering, is because he has been hitting Netanyahu hard,” said Chemi Peres, a political analyst for the daily Haaretz newspaper. “Adler is trying to take back from Lapid this theme of hitting Netanyahu hard. That was missing.”
Arad Akikous, an analyst who monitors the online media battles, said the Zionist Union’s latest attack ads seem to be a response to frustrated comments on social media from supporters who want to see a more aggressive approach.
“It shows that they [Zionist Union officials] are listening to what people are criticizing them about. They did what you do in politics: They saw a crisis and made it into an opportunity,” he said. “They are getting new reaction to their new tone. There’s a popular word in the comments on the Zionist Union that says ‘finally.’’