For the first time since the spectacular collapse of the ill-fated Ehud Barak government in 2001, the left may have a shot at running the country.

That contention goes against the prevailing political wisdom — not to mention ballot-box results — of the last decade and a half. Recent polls have shown Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud on the rise, possibly reaching into the high 30s in terms of Knesset seats (out of a total of 120), while the left-wing Labor party still fails to break past the 20 mark even in the most favorable polls.

But it is the Knesset’s 120 members, and not the country’s nearly six million registered voters, who could, just possibly, end Labor’s long languish in the political opposition.

In the Israeli electoral system, the Knesset is popularly elected, but not so the executive branch of government. Prime ministers and their cabinets are cobbled together in negotiations among the newly elected Knesset factions. In such a system, it is possible to have a situation in which the prime minister does not hail from the largest Knesset faction, but is simply the one who managed to obtain the support of a majority of MKs for his or her premiership.

After the 2009 elections, for example, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima won 29 Knesset seats, but Likud chairman Netanyahu, with 28 seats, became prime minister. Livni’s electoral showing was larger, but Netanyahu had the support of right-wing allies in other parties, forming a bloc larger than the one Livni could muster.

And it is there, in the wheeling and dealing of Knesset coalition-building, that a dramatic shift is underway, one that could conceivably see opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog as Israel’s next premier.

Alienated constituencies

It began with the ultra-Orthodox parties, in recent years the most dependable allies of the Likud-led right. Last month’s passage into law of the Haredi draft bill, which stipulates an increase in ultra-Orthodox military service over the next few years, angered and alienated the 18 MKs from Shas and UTJ, the Knesset’s two Haredi parties.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, center, speaking to the press in the Knesset alongside Shas leader Aryeh Deri, left, and Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on, seated far-right, March 10, 2014. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Labor leader Isaac Herzog, center, speaking to the press in the Knesset alongside Shas leader Aryeh Deri, left, and Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on, seated far-right, March 10, 2014. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

At the same time, the governance reform bill passed by the Knesset last month left anger and frustration in its wake among MKs from the Knesset’s three Arab-majority parties. The bill raised the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset to 3.25 percent, almost certainly knocking two of the Knesset’s three Arab-majority parties out of the parliament.

While Arab Israelis’ Knesset representation is unlikely to disappear because of the change, and may in fact increase, the sense of political helplessness with which Arab parties watched their Zionist counterparts change the rules of the game has led to early glimmers of a reassessment of their traditional disdain for playing an active role in Knesset coalition-building. Some are even beginning to wonder if their combined electoral power can’t be wielded more effectively to make the larger Jewish mainstream take their political demands more seriously.

Then there are the doves, on right and left. Two Hatnua MKs, former Labor leader Amram Mitzna and former Likud minister Meir Sheetrit, suggested this week that their party should leave the coalition over the apparently stalled peace talks. Similar sentiments are heard, even if only in whispers, among some Yesh Atid MKs.

And the final element of the shift, its key wildcard, is Moshe Kahlon, the incredibly popular former Likud communications minister responsible for dramatically lowering every Israeli’s cellphone bill by ending the de facto monopolies and predatory practices of the country’s telecommunications companies.

Minister of Communications Moshe Kahlon is embraced and congratulated by Likud members at a party convention held in Tel Aviv on October 17, 2012 (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Then-minister of communications Moshe Kahlon is embraced and congratulated by Likud members at a party convention held in Tel Aviv on October 17, 2012. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Lacking a party name, a Knesset list or even so much as the first glimmerings of a campaign, a Kahlon-led party already garners 10 Knesset seats in recent polls. (Political handlers around Netanyahu are not at all sure Netanyahu himself, a three-time Likud primary winner, could survive a leadership challenge from Kahlon within the party.)

This week, and not for the first time, Kahlon indicated in no uncertain terms that he is not obligated to the Likud.

“Likud for me was really the Likud of Menachem Begin, who also represented a social vision: reducing disparities between rich and poor, neighborhood renewal, social rehabilitation, and education reform. It was a pragmatic Likud that knew how to make peace when needed… But that Likud no longer exists today, and I struggle to accept some of the things taking place within the party,” he said in an interview with the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

The party “has strayed from the path,” he lamented, slamming especially the rise of the hawkish young guard within the party, which he described as the “extreme right” that has “taken over.”

According to political rumors swirling in the Knesset and among political analysts, Kahlon is gathering a list of accomplished, well-known figures for his new party, offering a place on the list to renowned economist Manuel Trachtenberg, former IDF major-general Yoav Galant, former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin and many others.

His plans reveal something of his strategy: place himself, a popular social-democrat Mizrahi, at the top of the list who, polls show, could nab three Knesset seats away from Shas and perhaps half-a-dozen from Likud, with the remainder of the list consisting of the sort of Ashkenazi elite that would be attractive to the hundreds of thousands of voters who went for Yesh Atid and Hatnua in last year’s elections.

If Kahlon wins 15 seats — admittedly an optimistic figure, but one being bandied about by worried Likud strategists — he would likely be offered more by a Labor leader desperate for the first chance at power in a generation than by a Netanyahu already surrounded by the likes of Yisrael Beytenu, Jewish Home and Yesh Atid.

Sources close to Kahlon have refused to rule out joining a Labor government. As recently as last year the same sources would have laughed openly at the prospect.

Those four Knesset constituencies — angry Haredim and Arabs, frustrated doves and centrists — alter the Knesset arithmetic on which the current government depends. With polls showing little dramatic change between the major camps in future national elections, the possible shift of 18 Haredi seats, 11 (or more) Arab seats, a few dovish MKs and 10-15 Kahlon-led seats could easily decide the next government. In fact, the more than 40 seats likely represented by these constituencies need not actually join a Herzog-led coalition or vote with it in the plenum. They only need to support Herzog over Netanyahu for premier — and the Prime Minister’s Office will be, at long last, Labor’s.

The self-made peace trap

Labor is keenly aware of these new possibilities. Indeed, it can think of little else.

“It is certainly possible to replace this government,” argues MK Hilik Bar, who serves as Labor’s secretary-general responsible for a great deal of its operations. Even without new elections, “there’s a potential bloc in the current constellation, with the Haredim. I think Labor has to do this, to seek to replace this terrible government.”

Opposition head and Labor leader MK Isaac Herzog speaks at the Knesset, January 20, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Opposition head and Labor leader MK Isaac Herzog speaks at the Knesset, January 20, 2014. (photo credit: AP /Ariel Schalit)

This awareness led Labor’s leader Isaac Herzog to lead a walkout of last month’s marathon voting session in the Knesset plenum in which both the Haredi draft bill and the governance bill were voted into law. Even as many Labor MKs openly acknowledged that they supported most of the provisions in those bills — Herzog himself presented a bill in the last Knesset raising the electoral threshold to 5% — the walkout instantly transformed Herzog from the leader of a medium-sized party to the acknowledged head of an angry and mobilized opposition.

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri stated openly that Shas was likely to vote for Herzog for prime minister at the next opportunity.

The upshot, then, is this: The Netanyahu government has alienated enough domestic constituencies that, while the “right,” broadly defined, is still likely to win the next parliamentary election, Labor’s Isaac Herzog may end up leading the next government.

There is a historic irony in the shift. As Netanyahu is being pushed by Yesh Atid and Jewish Home into a series of liberal domestic reforms long championed by Labor, it is in opposing those reforms that Labor stands its best chance at ending nearly a generation in the political wilderness.

Yet even as the party claws its way back to political relevance, even if not to electoral triumph, it has not yet overcome the political albatross that led to its ignominious decline at the start of the last decade.

The last Labor-led coalition, the hapless Ehud Barak government that lasted just 20 months between 1999 and 2001, was directly responsible for Labor’s wilderness years.

Ehud Barak, left, with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat (photo credit: Sharon Farmer)

Ehud Barak, left, with Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat (photo credit: Sharon Farmer)

It was Barak’s perceived mishandling of peace talks, the widespread sense that he was more concerned with his own political ambitions than the uncomfortable reality of Yasser Arafat’s violent proclivities, to the point where Barak chose to continue US-led peace negotiations even as buses were blowing up in Israel’s cities, that fatally undermined public trust in the Israeli left.

Nowhere is this more evident than in voter turnout figures. After 30 years of incredibly stable and high turnout that hovered at or near 80% from the 1960s until Barak’s election in 1999, the figure fell precipitously in the Knesset elections of 2003 into the mid-60s — where it has remained ever since. Nearly one in five Israeli voters simply stopped voting in the wake of the Second Intifada, a phenomenon that affected primarily the left. The left’s central political narrative — that peace with the Palestinians can be achieved through Israeli concessions — was shattered for most Israelis, including many traditionally left-wing voters who deeply distrust Netanyahu and the right.

It is there, on the subject of peace talks, where the left remains most vulnerable. In countless polls over 15 years Israelis have said repeatedly that they support Labor’s land-for-peace formula in principle, but do not trust Labor to carry out those policies in practice.

In the January 2013 elections, Livni’s Hatnua ran primarily on a platform of advancing peace talks, while Labor, led at the time by MK Shelly Yachimovich, pointedly refused to speak about the Palestinians during the campaign. Hatnua won six seats, suggesting that there are votes to be won by identifying whole-heartedly with the peace process — but not many.

Labor may gain a handful of Knesset seats (even if not for the party, at least for Herzog’s premiership) by identifying itself with peace talks and railing repeatedly against the government’s policies toward the Palestinians. But in doing so, the party risks rushing headlong past the point of diminishing returns, where criticism of Netanyahu turns into a public perception that Labor once again places blind trust in what the public still largely views as an untrustworthy Palestinian interlocutor.

It is not at all clear that Labor grasps this danger.

“We are on the edge of a volcano and the public does not understand the gravity of the situation. And all the fault lies with the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu], who is unable to do anything,” Herzog told the Knesset on Monday, openly placing the entire fault for the stalled negotiations on the shoulders of the Israeli prime minister, not his Palestinian counterpart.

Labor Party chairman MK Isaac Herzog leads a party meeting in the Knesset on February 03, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)

Labor Party chairman MK Isaac Herzog leads a party meeting in the Knesset on February 03, 2014 (photo credit: Flash90)

“The entire process is a failure that has crashed because there is no possibility of taking real steps toward peace on Netanyahu’s terms,” Herzog continued. “Therefore I call on the Hatnua and Yesh Atid [parties] to leave the government and join us.”

As peace talks falter, it is only natural for the opposition to feel compelled to heap scorn and blame on the coalition it seeks to replace. But even if it is right, such a move may be politically ruinous. For decisive swaths of the Israeli electorate, Labor suffers from a trust deficit over precisely that issue. Netanyahu’s diplomatic failures, whatever they may be, have not yet ended with dozens of suicide bombings detonating in Israeli pizzerias and buses, as Barak’s did not so long ago. If Labor insists on resuscitating peace talks as a decisive electoral issue, it may find itself once again facing the sort of excoriation it has not known for over a decade.

And in doing so, it might harm the first real chance the left has seen in over a decade at reclaiming control of the country.