Political movements: Will the Right-rule remain?

Diplomatic briefing: The right is still very much in the saddle – but small, contrary winds are starting to blow.

abbas (photo credit: marc israel sellem)
(photo credit: marc israel sellem)
WITH THE RIGHT-TENDING NETANYAHU GOVERNMENT firmly entrenched and the Israeli electorate seemingly moving ever rightward, what are the chances of the center-left coming to power? Not high if the implosion of the Labor party under Ehud Barak and the lackluster performance of centrist Kadima in opposition are anything to go by.
Over recent weeks, however, two potential game-breakers have emerged.
Former Labor leader Amram Mitzna and the charismatic ex-Shas head Arye Deri have both signaled plans to return to national politics. Early polls show that with Mitzna, rather than Barak, at the helm, Labor would win back much of its declining constituency. They also reveal that as the head of a socially oriented new party appealing to the less well-off, Deri would take a huge slice of the Shas vote – possibly enough to leave him a kingmaker after the next elections.
Ever since he concluded a voluntary five-year stint as the appointed head of the local council in the small Negev town of Yeruham in late November, Mitzna has been wooed by all and sundry on the Israeli left. Both Barak and Labor party strongman Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer have tried to entice him back into the Labor fold with promises to support him as leader. Mitzna has also been approached by Meretz boss Haim Oron and by Yossi Kucik, a former director of the Prime Minister’s Office, who is trying to set up a new party on the left.
Mitzna, 65, says he will decide whether to return to politics and, if so, in what capacity, within the next several weeks. His inclination, though, seems to be to return to Labor and challenge the leadership. He has told confidants he believes that with changes at the top and sharper ideological messages, the ailing party can be rehabilitated.
Mitzna has the credentials to lead Labor in a new direction. As a prominent member of the dovish Geneva Initiative, an Israeli- Palestinian peace lobby, he is more peace-oriented than the current leadership; and as outgoing head of the Yerucham town council, he has firsthand knowledge of the needs of the poorer development towns so he could credibly court the blue-collar vote.
He also brings to the mix the managerial skills of running a large city – he was mayor of Haifa for ten years from 1993-2003 – and an impressive military record culminating with the rank of major general and including a stint as head of the Central Command, responsible for the West Bank during the first intifada.
But Mitzna also has a pronounced Achilles heel. In his previous round as Labor leader he clearly couldn’t stand the heat, resigning in May 2003 after just six months on the job. Ironically, it was his strongest current supporter, Ben-Eliezer, who, more than anyone else, made his life as leader a misery.
Still, the current leadership vacuum in Labor is such that Mitzna seems like a very attractive proposition. Arecent Chanel Two TV poll showed that with Mitzna as leader, Labor would retain the 13 seats it now has in the Knesset, whereas with Barak it would plummet to only 7. With Barak, the crucial joint Labor-Kadima tally would be only 38; with Mitzna 42.
Mitzna’s return could also greatly accelerate the political timetable. He would almost certainly intensify the pressure on Labor to withdraw from the Netanyahu government, both on the merits of the case and in order to start rebuilding the party in opposition. And that could spark an early election.
The return of Arye Deri, 51, could be even more significant. Jailed on corruption charges from 2000-2002, the seven-year period of “moral turpitude,” during which he was barred from public life, expired in July 2009. Ever since, there have been persistent rumors of a planned comeback; in early December Deri confirmed that he was in the throes of creating a new party with more genuine working- class appeal and a more moderate foreign policy line than the right-wing Shas. A Channel Two poll in July predicted 7 seats for Deri heading a party of that ilk; Deri says his own more recent polls give him 8 seats to Shas’s 3.
“Test polling shows that Deri could pose a serious threat to Shas. Not only that, he will also take votes from the Likud. And that would make things very interesting,” pollster Rafi Smith tells The Report.
The big difference between Deri and Shas politically is that he does not have a strategic pact with the Likud. For now, he says he would throw his 8 putative seats behind Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s candidacy for prime minister, on condition that Netanyahu forms a national unity government. But if Netanyahu fails to meet that condition, or if Kadima and Labor make a particularly poor showing, unlike Shas, Deri’s hands would not be tied.
Deri could possibly pick up even more support through an alliance with Shas maverick Chaim Amsellem, who has also been talking about setting up a new party, although so far the two are not working together.
Bottom line: The right is still very much in the saddle – but small, contrary winds are starting to blow.