Jerusalem Report

Labor's love lost

Shelly Yacimovich has been unable to hold onto party heavyweights, nor strike a unity deal with Tzipi Livni. So where will that leave the Israeli center-left on Election Day?

Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich
Photo by: GIDEON MARKOWICZ / FLASH 90
Israel’s election campaign officially kicked off in early December with the right united around Benjamin Netanyahu, and the divided center-left without an agreed alternative candidate for prime minister.

Not that they didn’t try. Polls showed that if Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni found a way to run together, they could win around 30 seats and pose a real threat to Netanyahu. The problem was that both insisted on being the candidate for prime minister. Yacimovich offered Livni the No. 2 spot on Labor’s list, control of the party’s Palestinian policy and, if they won, the Foreign Ministry and deputy premiership.

Livni insisted that they agree to rotate the top job, with her, the more experienced of the two, going first, and that she also be able to bring in some of her people on what would be a joint Knesset list. Yacimovich refused both demands.

Yacimovich subsequently lost two former party leaders to Livni. Both Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz left Labor for Livni’s “The Movement,” claiming that they did so because Yacimovich was underplaying the importance of peace with the Palestinians.

That Yacimovich had been unable to retain both these highly regarded heavyweight politicians reflected badly on her people management skills. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To lose one former party leader may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

Yacimovich has steadfastly stuck to prioritizing her socioeconomic agenda, even at the expense of losing the party’s more dovish members and supporters. That is the advice she is getting from chief party strategist, the left-leaning American election guru Stan Greenberg. The idea is to give the impression that on foreign policy and defense there is little to choose between Labor and Likud. And, the theory goes, once the foreign policy and defense variable is taken out of the equation, voting boils down to a choice between Yacimovich’s plan for fairer sharing of the economic pie and Netanyahu’s neo-conservative favoring of the rich. In other words, the hope is that right-wing hawks, who normally vote Likud, might be tempted to switch to Labor on the strength of its economic promise.

The trouble with this is that there are at least six big issues in the current campaign – three pertaining to foreign affairs and defense: Iran, the Palestinians, and Israel’s growing isolation; and three domestic issues: more equal sharing of the defense burden (drafting the ultra-Orthodox), a fairer economic deal and the rule of law.

How the various parties shape up on the issues can be gleaned to some extent from the composition of their Knesset lists. On the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list (Likud Beytenu), for example, only three of the first 35 claim to favor a two-state solution: Netanyahu himself, Tzahi Hanegbi and Carmel Shama Hacohen. This will make it difficult for a reelected Netanyahu to move ahead on the Palestinian track even if he wants to.

The list is also vulnerable on the rule of law, with several of its members prominent in legislation designed to clip the wings of the Supreme Court. In a bid to win secular and Russian immigrant votes, senior Likud players are hinting that Netanyahu may go for a coalition without the ultra-Orthodox and push through legislation to draft yeshiva students.

Likud Beytenu’s main electoral message though will be that only Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman offer the firm, unified and experienced leadership Israel needs in these troubled times.

Right of Likud Beytenu is the Habayit Hayehudi-National Union-Tekumah ticket, a younger more settler-oriented alliance between Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel. The 40-year-old Bennett, the new leader of the Habayit Hayehudi (formerly the National Religious Party), wants to attract hawkish secular voters as well as the party’s traditional knitted skullcap support. Their main selling point is their youth and energy and their argument that they need to be in the next coalition to prevent Netanyahu from buckling under pressure for a two-state solution.

The two Haredi parties, the Sephardi Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism, will probably win their usual 17-20 seats, and take them into a coalition with the right. The interesting development here, though, is that by joining forces with the ultra-secular Yisrael Beytenu, Likud broke its unwritten alliance with Shas. That and the fact that the relatively moderate Aryeh Deri is back in the Shas leadership loop could lead to an unlikely post election surprise – Shas plumping for a coalition with the center-left.

On the center-left, Labor’s Yacimovich is taking pains not to say anything that might be construed as anti-Haredi, keeping open the possibility of future cooperation. Her main electoral focus though will be her “Plan for Fair Economics,” based on five cornerstones: Improved basic services, fairer wages, reduced cost of living, fair competition and fair taxation. The main idea is to tax the rich to fund programs for society as a whole. Her chief economic spokesman, Avishai Braverman, a former senior World Bank official, claims this can be done without any budgetary deficit. Like Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, Yacimovich says Israel must retake the initiative with the Palestinians. But, like Lapid, she does not say how.

Lapid, a telegenic former television presenter and columnist, appeals mainly to the young, promising affordable housing, a 10-year educational plan and more equal military service. So far, he is actually leading the pack in the high schools. Trouble is they don’t yet have the vote.

Unlike Yacimovich and Lapid, Livni’s The Movement puts peacemaking with the Palestinians at the top of its agenda. Livni argues there can be no real social justice without peace, that “two states for two peoples” is an Israeli imperative, and that without a genuine peace process, Israel will find itself increasingly isolated. Her big selling point is the argument that only she presents a real alternative to Netanyahu. She will take Likud Beytenu head on and argue that Netanyahu’s policies are leading Israel to ruin in the hope that the election will eventually become a “Tzipi or Bibi” affair.

Also on the center-left, Kadima under Shaul Mofaz will push similar messages. But Mofaz is too far behind in the polls to present a credible challenge for the top job.

He did recently receive a ringing endorsement from former prime minister and onetime party leader Ehud Olmert, who suggested that with the incumbent Ehud Barak out of politics, Mofaz, a former chief of staff and defense minister, would make an ideal candidate for the defense ministry.

On the left, Meretz is also sounding messages similar to Livni’s, but has a wider platform, including social issues and the rule of law, and a greater readiness for compromise with the Palestinians.

As for the so-called “Arab” lists, Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al and Balad, there are no significant changes. They can expect the usual 10 or so seats in parliament, depending on the size of the Israeli Arab turnout, and contribute to center-left efforts to form a “blocking majority” of 61 seats.

In the race for the 19th Knesset there will be 34 lists, of which only about a dozen will pass the 2 percent threshold.

Latest polls show the right-wing-religious bloc at around 70 seats, and the center left with 50. With well over a month to go, things could change. If they don’t, the key will be what coalition Netanyahu forms.

He would be able to command around 70 of the 120 Knesset seats with Likud Beytenu and his “natural allies,” Habayit Hayehudi-National Union-Tekumah, Shas and United Torah Judaism. But he could also get there with Likud Beytenu, Labor, the Movement, Yesh Atid and Kadima. Tow very different propositions – two very different futures.


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