Labor on a roll

Labor’s Herzog seems to have the edge over the Likud incumbent in the upcoming election battle.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni take part in a joint news conference in Tel Aviv, December 10 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni take part in a joint news conference in Tel Aviv, December 10
(photo credit: REUTERS)
FOR THE first time in over a decade and a half the Labor party is in an election with a real chance of winning. The alliance between party leader Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog and Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni transformed Labor overnight from a struggling also-ran stuck on around a dozen predicted Knesset seats to the largest party in the country with expectations of 24 seats or more.
And with less than two months to go to election day, a cluster of public opinion polls showed Labor’s lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s incumbent Likud widening.
The festive atmosphere during the mid-January Labor primaries reflected a growing belief that Netanyahu’s six successive years at the helm are about to come to an end and that Herzog will be the man to succeed him.
The party chose a Knesset list peopled with a relatively large number of prominent young politicians and formidable women elected in their own right in the top spots. Campaign strategists hope the added appeal to young and women voters will help seal the deal.
The Herzog-Livni alliance, now dubbed the Zionist Camp, hopes to recreate something approaching the public atmosphere in 1999 when Labor’s Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu in a landslide. The pervasive sense then was that Netanyahu was paralyzing the country on all fronts and must be replaced.
But the situation then was different. Barak, as a former chief of staff and highly decorated soldier, was able to trump Netanyahu’s security credentials and nullify his trademark scaremongering. And there were great hopes of reviving the Oslo process seen as the key to unblocking political and socioeconomic stagnation.
The Herzog-Livni joint leadership ploy is designed to have the same effect as the 1999 focus on Barak’s military background: To convince the public that not only must Netanyahu be replaced, but that there is a mature leadership alternative that can be trusted with the nation’s future in a complex security and geopolitical environment.
It is too early to say whether the joint leadership ticket will prove a winning gambit or have a delayed boomerang effect. On the one hand, the two can boast years of top-level government experience and personal involvement in the most sensitive negotiating and security issues. Both served in war cabinets, Livni was a chief negotiator with the Palestinians; Herzog has been involved in delicate international diplomacy and was recently entrusted by Netanyahu himself with the conduct of secret talks with Germany on terms for the supply of a 6th nuclear-powered submarine.
HERZOG AND Livni are also touting their pact as a new model for potentially fruitful collective leadership. More importantly, in ideological terms it is being portrayed as a profound synthesis of the Labor Zionism of Ben-Gurion (Herzog) and Jabotinsky’s Revisionism (Livni), the two core and once diametrically opposed founding movements of the state, in an effort to restore an amalgam of traditional Zionist values and save Israel from the neo-Zionist extremists (Netanyahu’s Likud and Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi).
The argument against the dual leadership model is that real leaders don’t need sidekicks, and the question is whether over time Livni’s presence will add to or detract from Herzog’s perceived leadership credentials. In the short term at least, it is clear that the union has given Herzog the boost he needed for acceptance by the public as prime ministerial material.
To counter the Zionist Camp’s hopes of emerging as the largest party in the next Knesset, Netanyahu’s natural instinct would have been to hook up with other right-tending parties, for example, Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi or Moshe Kahlon’s Koolanu. That is what he did in 1996 with David Levy’s Gesher and Rafael Eitan’s Tsomet, and again in 2013 with Avigdor Liberman’s YYisrael Beytenu.
It seems that this time though it might be too late. Likud institutions and already chosen Knesset contenders would be loath to go that route; Bennett sees himself replacing Netanyahu as leader of the right; and Kahlon’s strategy is based on fighting Likud for the blue-collar vote and then squeezing the finance ministry from either Herzog or Netanyahu in return for post-election support.
In any event, Likud will try to cast the election as the tried and trusted Netanyahu against an inexperienced leadership team that won’t be able to handle the huge political and military challenges Israel faces. The Likud party line is to mock Herzog-Livni by referring to them only as “Buji-Tzipi” and to deride Labor’s young Knesset list as inexperienced and anti-Zionist.
Labor’s comeback will be to target Netanyahu as a weak leader who has done nothing to solve Israel’s crucial problems from security through declining international standing to housing and living costs. It will highlight what it sees as Netanyahu’s poor performance during last summer’s 50-day Gaza war, his hesitant handling of the battle and worse, his failure to exploit favorable regional conditions to put a potentially lasting diplomatic arrangement in place in its wake.
Labor copywriters will find a way to say that after six straight years of Netanyahu, the country needs a change.
A poll for the Zionist Camp by American election guru Stanley Greenberg suggests that targeting Netanyahu will find a receptive audience. According to Greenberg, 48 percent of Israelis have highly negative feelings toward the prime minister, usually more than enough to signal the end for an incumbent.
In such circumstances, simply presenting a genuine alternative should be half the job done. That is precisely what the Herzog-Livni combination is meant to do. Moreover, they will play up the subliminal message that their willingness to share power reflects a determination to do whatever it takes to solve the country’s problems, as opposed to a Netanyahu- style obsession with power for its own sake.
To further strengthen its leadership claims, the Zionist Camp will highlight its candidates for high office.
Around Herzog and Livni for prime minister and foreign minister on a rotating basis, the leadership team will include as its prospective finance minister Manuel Trajtenberg, the economist who tried to translate the 2011 social protest movement into down-toearth policy terms; socioeconomic warriors Shelly Yachimovich, Amir Peretz and Eitan Cabel as candidates for the other economic ministries and former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin for defense. Clearly, even if the Zionist Camp wins the election much of this power will have to be shared with potential coalition partners; showing that it has a full house of qualified candidates is intended to add gravitas to the Herzog-Livni ticket.
One of the key election issues will revolve around the question of what constitutes true Zionism. For the Zionist Camp it means a Jewish majority homeland, capable of defending itself and secure in its international legitimacy. It will attack the Likud-Bayit Yehudi vision of Jewish minority rule in a binational Greater Israel as a perversion of traditional Zionist thinking that will cost Israel its international legitimacy and put the Zionist project at risk. It will also slam Likud- Bayit Yehudi’s prioritizing of budgets for settlers as antithetic to traditional Zionism’s egalitarian social caring for all.
The very name “Zionist Camp” is an attempt to reclaim the Zionist high ground from the right-wing “National Camp” and nullify its routine attempts to vilify the center-left as anti-Zionist and anti-patriotic.
Another key electoral bone of contention will be what constitutes the better formula for long term security: Likud-Bayit Yehudi’s military occupation designed to preempt any terrorist build-up – at the potential cost of a new Palestinian uprising and loss of international legitimacy; or the Zionist Camp’s call for renewed peace efforts with the potential for Palestinian quiet, mutual economic benefits and enhanced international support.
Zionist Camp leaders argue that national security is not simply a question of military balance, but is also dependent on international standing, economic power and belief in the justice of the cause.
The main thrust of the Zionist Camp’s campaign, however, will be socioeconomic.
With Trajtenberg aboard as the economic guru and two young leaders of the 2011 social protest, Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, high on its Knesset slate, it will hope to attract much of the potentially huge social protest vote. Internal polls show at least 12 centrist and soft-right floating voter seats up for grabs and amenable to a strong socioeconomic message. In the last election most of it went to Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. This time the Zionist Camp will target Lapid as the man who as finance minister was handed a golden opportunity to make a difference but signally failed to deliver.
The Zionist Camp will also emphasize Israel’s growing international isolation under Netanyahu. The thrust of the give-and-take campaign is encapsulated in two election video clips. The Likud’s shows a top security red phone ringing, and Herzog and Livni arguing with each other over who should answer it; the Zionist Camp’s shows the phone not ringing because leaders across the world are no longer interested in talking to Netanyahu.
With three women, Livni, Yachimovich and Shaffir in the first four on its Knesset slate and four in the top 10 (Likud has one), the Zionist Camp will make a special effort to attract women voters. This could have a major impact on the outcome. A late surge of women voters for Livni when she headed Kadima in 2009 was instrumental in making it the largest party in the Knesset.
And with its relatively young and freshfaced Knesset slate, the Zionist Camp will try to make voting for it the cool thing to do among the young. That is what lifted Lapid and Bennett in 2013. The Zionist Camp will promote a sense of women rallying for their children’s sake and young people rallying to save their futures.
In past elections, the battle of the blocs rather than the battle between the parties has been decisive. It was enough to be leader of the largest bloc – right-religious or center-left and Arab parties to become prime minster.
In 2009 for example, Netanyahu formed the government despite the fact that Livni’s Kadima polled one more seat than Likud.
This, however, is no longer the case. This is because the blocs are no longer clear-cut.
Center-right parties like Kahlon’s Koolanu and Avigdor Liberman’s YYisrael Beytenu as well as the Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are no longer committed to Likud and could go either way. Therefore, whoever leads the largest party will likely get the backing to form the next government.
Hence, the importance this time of the battle within the blocs. To improve its chances of forming the next government, the Likud needs to win seats at Bennett’s expense – it will make a big difference if the 37 seats polls predict for the two parties together are split 20 to 17 or 24 to 13; the same is true of the Zionist Camp, Yesh Atid, Meretz bloc; Herzog will aim to win seats from Yesh Atid and Meretz by making the argument that to form the next government the Zionist Camp will need to emerge the largest party by as clearcut a majority as possible.
Herzog says his goal is 28-30 seats and a decisive lead over Likud. And if current trends continue, he will be hard to stop.