Understanding Israel, Part Four, Elections

[To listen to this posting, please scroll to the end and click on the attached audio file].  

With the election less than three weeks away, the latest polls show Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party in a tie – or even slightly behind – its main rival, the “Zionist Union.”  Who is the “Zionist Union,” and why might the Israeli electorate decide that it no longer wants or needs a “Bibi-sitter?”  (As referenced in Likud’s ad, accessible on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW4c1oyJTUc).  

Zionist Union, or more literally, “The Zionist Camp” (Hamahane HaTzioni), is a recent (December, 2014) alliance between the two principal center-left parties, Labor, headed by Isaac Herzog, and Tzipi Lifni’s Hatnuah (“The Movement”) party.  Herzog and Livni announced that if their alliance forms the next government, they will each serve two years, respectively, as Prime Minister, in rotation.   

The Zionist Union’s goals are stated in its pithy You Tube commercial. (Accessible at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oeN9jcvUfDw)  Its four-word punch line is: “It’s him [Netanyahu], or us.”  Unlike Likud, which (as I intend to discuss next week) has as its main focus the electorate’s ever-present security concerns, the Zionist Union’s focus (beyond defeating “him,”) is upon the electorate’s also ever-present domestic concerns.  

According to the Zionist Union, the most pressing issues are: 

•    The economy and the cost of living.  Young couples can’t afford to buy an apartment, even on two salaries.  
•    Social justice.  Too much of Israeli society is poor, elderly, or both.  There is too much racial, gender, and other discrimination.  
•    Integrity and transparency in government.  Too many politicians and government employees are corrupt, and it is too hard to “follow the money.” 
•    “Sharing the burden” and reducing control of the religious parties.  The religious segment of society must be better integrated into and have less “veto power” over the secular segment, including increased participation in the army or national service. 
•    Peace with the Palestinians and implementing a land-for-peace“two-state solution.”  The world increasingly views Israel as an oppressive occupier.  Moreover, Israel’s future Jewish character is fundamentally threatened by Arab demographics.  

For decades, the Labor Party and its antecedent parties (principally, Mapai) was synonymous with Israeli government.  Labor entered the opposition for the first time with Mechanim Begin’s earth-shaking victory in 1977.  Since then, Labor has sometimes been in power, sometimes shared it, and sometimes – including since 1991-- been out.  The following excerpt from the Wikipedia article that analyzes the downfall of the once dominant political party in Israel, points to several factors. 

By forfeiting identification with the establishment and building of the State of Israel, symbolised by a predilection for military service and by the settling of the land of Israel, Labor lost its most important asset. Deserting the Zionist symbol of Jerusalem, by showing willingness to cede part of it to the Palestinians, was an ill-fated move. When cosmopolitan and individualist values made inroads into the party, it distanced itself from the collectivist ethos that has been dominant and is still widespread in Israel. Their association with the Oslo Accords meant that they could not avoid being discredited by its failure. Demographic factors have worked against Labor, as the growing Sefardi population, as well as the recent Russian-Jewish immigrants, have largely voted for other parties.  …  Attempts to gain the support of the Israeli Arab voters have damaged the image of the party, and yielded no harvest.

I could add to this that last year’s Gaza war further discredited, in the minds of many Israelis, the left’s bid to sweeten Israel’s peace offers.  

Nevertheless, perhaps the center of Israeli politics has now shifted somewhat back toward the left on the strength of concern for and modest progress in social issues.  Once again, it’s important to remember that no single party controls the center, or will win even half of the required majority Knesset seats.  So, governance from a coalition will continue to be complicated and uncertain. 

Who are the leaders of the Zionist Union?  Isaac “Buji” Herzog – the potential next Prime Minister – is an attorney and son of the sixth president of Israel, Chaim Herzog.  Buji has only served as leader of the Labor party since November, 2013.  He prioritizes resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has criticized Bibi Netanyahu for alienating the international community and, especially, Barak Obama. Herzog authored an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/28/opinion/dividing-the-us-on-israel.html?_r=0

Tzipi Livni is Herzog’s election-alliance partner and the potential Prime Minister after him (due to their rotation agreement).  Livni is also a lawyer, with far greater notoriety and high-level government experience than Herzog.  But with that experience has come political reverses.  Most notably, Livni missed her chance to be Prime Minister in 2009 when voters gave her party (then “Kadima”) one Knesset seat more than Netanyahu’s Likud.  However, Likud and its right-wing religious party allies were better positioned than Kadima to form a governing coalition.  When Livni was unable to marshal the requisite 61 seats in the Knesset, Israeli President Shimon Peres turned to Likud and its allies to do so.    

[It is quite possible that this scenario might shortly repeat itself, depriving Tzipi Livni yet again of the premiership.   The same voters who currently place Labor tied with or slightly ahead of Likud, also say that they still favor Netanyahu as Prime Minister.  Since it is the President of Israel – Reuvin Rivlin – who is empowered to decide whom to invite to attempt to form a government, he might decide, or be obliged, to invite Likud and its allies to do so again, even if Likud itself receives fewer votes in the election than Labor.] 

Livni suffered a further defeat in 2012, when she lost the leadership of her party and resigned from the Knesset. Six months later, she formed her present party: Hatnuah (“the Movement,”) which joined the Likud-led coalition in 2013.  Livni served as Netanyahu’s Justice Minister until being fired in December 2014, along with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid.  The upcoming election is the result of the collapse of the Likud-Hatnuah-Yesh Atid coalition. 

Labor leader Herzog declined Likud’s invitation to attend Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to Congress next week.  Likud proposed this as a way to show a “united front” in Israel’s position against the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran.  On the one hand, his rejection was unsurprising, since Herzog has criticized Netanyahu for accepting the speaking opportunity without consulting President Obama, and would presumably not wish to be seen as Netanyahu’s “supporting cast.”  On the other hand, Herzog has declined an opportunity to be present on, or at least near, the “big stage” and thus perhaps impress Israeli voters – who will surely be watching Netanyahu’s speech -- as his worthy successor.    

Shabbat shalom.

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