The Israeli war widow who is the reluctant overnight star of Israel’s general election – Telegraph.co.uk
The two final surveys published on Friday before next week’s ballot showed the prime minister staring at defeat. One poll commissioned by the mass circulation Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper showed the Left-wing Zionist Union set to win 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament), compared to 22 for Likud.
A separate poll in Ma’ariv newspaper showed a similar margin – with the Zionist Union, fronted by Isaac Herzog, the Labour leader, on 25 seats and Likud on 21.
While Mrs Kastan-Keidar’s contribution to the trend is unclear, her intervention in Saturday’s rally overshadowed the main speaker, Meir Dagan, a former Mossad director, who attacked Mr Netanyahu’s unremitting emphasis on the threat from Iran, the Israeli leader’s main campaign issue, which has failed to resonate with ordinary voters.
Mrs Kastan-Keidar’s husband, Dolev, a lieutenant-colonel in the Israeli army, was killed in a fire fight after intercepting Hamas militants who infiltrated into Israel from Gaza last July, just days after persuading commanding officers to let him leave a training exercise to join the fighting.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mrs Kastan-Keidar, a documentary film-maker and mother-of-three, described an awkward and emotional conversation with Mr Netanyahu when he telephoned her to offer condolences.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (AP)
“I spoke about the need for peace,” she said. “I spoke like a little girl. I said, Bibi [Mr Netanyahu’s childhood nickname], can I ask you for something? Can you make sure there will be no more wars?
“I could hear the grief and responsibility in his voice. He did want a ceasefire with Hamas. He was reluctant to send in ground forces.
“I’m not cynical. I don’t believe a leader doesn’t care about the lives of his people and just sends them out to die. But he does nothing to prevent it. I do think he feels responsible. He just doesn’t understand.”
Mrs Kastan-Keidar, who writes a regular blog for Walla, an Israeli magazine, on coping with her bereavement, said she requested speaking time at last week’s rally because of her belief in the urgent need for a peace deal with the Palestinians.
2009 – present and 1996 – 1999
Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister since David Ben Gurion. He came to power for the first time in 1996 and held the premiership until his crushing defeat in the 1999 election.
He achieved a political comeback in 2009 and has been prime minister ever since. But opinion polls suggest that his Right-wing Likud party is heading for defeat in this election, confronting Mr Netanyahu with one of the most bruising struggles of his career.
Born in 1949, Mr Netanyahu studied in America and served in Israel’s version of the SAS, before making his reputation in the 1980s as an accomplished diplomat. In 1993, he became leader of Likud at the age of just 44, winning his first election at 47.
In total, Mr Netanyahu has spent nine years as prime minister, but his governments have shared a number of features. In every case, he has alienated the American president, opposed progress towards peace with the Palestinians, continued to expand Jewish settlements in occupied land – save for a pause in 2010 – and offered chilling warnings of the threat posed by Iran.
Mr Netanyahu is a polarising figure and this election amounts to a referendum on his premiership.
Speaking to a nationally televised audience, she lamented an election campaign that had virtually ignored last summer’s war – which killed nearly 2,200 Palestinians and 73 on the Israeli side – and the decades-long conflict between the two sides.
“The conflict with the Palestinians has taken too many lives and the only way to stop it is to reach a peace agreement,” said Mrs Kastan-Keidar, a diminutive figure who wears her own and her husband’s wedding rings attached to a gold necklace.
Her message seemed to gain added resonance for being delivered in the same square where Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister who signed the now-moribund Oslo peace accords, was assassinated by a Right-wing Israeli in 1995.
Yet it failed win over Mr Netanyahu himself, who last weekend backtracked on his own previous commitment to accepting a Palestinian state – made in a speech to Tek Aviv’s Bar Ilan University in 2009. The speech was “no longer relevant” because of the danger of such a state falling into radical Islamist groups’ hands, he told journalists.
Mrs Kastan-Keidar also came under attack from a Right-wing journalist, Hagai Huberman, who accused her in a widely-read article of “killing her husband and crying that she is now a widow”.
Huberman later said his words were not meant literally but referred to her belief in the peace process, which he said led to more Israelis being killed.
But peace with the Palestinians has been raised in the campaign’s final days. Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister and joint leader of the Zionist Union with Mr Herzog, told a rally in Beersheba this week that she would revive peace talks.
“I hope to go back to a direct dialogue with the Palestinians, so we can have direct talks and the support of the Arab countries that support us,” said Mrs Livni. “We need to get an agreement that it’s not only a piece of paper but a change in the order in the region.”
Leader Labour party
2013 – present
Social services minister
2007 – 2011
Party: Labour (Zionist Union)
Until as recently as 2013, Isaac Herzog was a second-rank politician who almost nobody saw as a future prime minister of Israel. In that year, he became leader of the Labour party and the polls suggest that he now stands on the brink of unseating Benjamin Netanyahu.
Mr Herzog has benefited from a makeover designed to spruce up his nerdish appearance and improve his high-pitched speaking voice.
He may not look like a leader, but Mr Herzog comes from the aristocracy of Israeli politics. His father, Chaim, was the sixth president of Israel and his grandfather was the Chief Rabbi. His uncle by marriage was Abba Eban, who was Israel’s face to the world during almost a decade as foreign minister in the 1960s and 70s.
Mr Herzog, known to Israelis by his nickname “Bougie”, was born in 1960 and entered the Knesset in 2003. He has taken Labour into an alliance with a centrist party led by a former rival, Tzipi Livni, to create the “Zionist Union”.
If this block wins enough seats to lead the next government, Mr Herzog will be prime minister for the first half of the four-year term, handing over to Ms Livni for the second half.