Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bejnamin Netanyahu

Bibi and Main Rival Agree on Peace Process

Now that the elections are over and President Barack Obama is returning to business, one person he should pay some serious attention to is the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. All polls show Labor becoming the second-largest party by a large margin after Israel’s January 22 election. Thus, if Obama is hoping for an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she’s the only serious possibility.

So here, according to Israeli embassy reports on her meetings with French officials in July, is what she thinks on diplomatic issues: She thinks the Palestinians should negotiate without preconditions – just like Netanyahu. She thinks they must recognize Israel as a Jewish state – again like Netanyahu. She thinks Israel should retain the major settlement blocs, and shouldn’t withdraw to the 1967 lines – yet again like Netanyahu.

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Now that the elections are over and President Barack Obama is returning to business, one person he should pay some serious attention to is the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. All polls show Labor becoming the second-largest party by a large margin after Israel’s January 22 election. Thus, if Obama is hoping for an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she’s the only serious possibility.

So here, according to Israeli embassy reports on her meetings with French officials in July, is what she thinks on diplomatic issues: She thinks the Palestinians should negotiate without preconditions – just like Netanyahu. She thinks they must recognize Israel as a Jewish state – again like Netanyahu. She thinks Israel should retain the major settlement blocs, and shouldn’t withdraw to the 1967 lines – yet again like Netanyahu.

And, from an interview last year: While she thinks most settlements will have to go under any deal with the Palestinians, she, like Netanyahu, doesn’t consider them “a sin and a crime.” Moreover, again like Netanyahu, she doesn’t think the “peace process” should top Israel’s agenda (though she disagrees with him over what should). In fact, as she herself said just last week, she is “fighting for” the cause of “ending the dichotomy between left and right in foreign affairs. There are no longer two blocs … it’s all a fixation.”

In short, contrary to the media’s persistent portrayal of Netanyahu as a “hardline right-winger” heading a “far right” coalition, his positions on the Palestinian issue are shared by almost all Israelis – not only supporters of his coalition, but also supporters of what is likely to be the main opposition party come January, assuming Netanyahu (as expected) forms the next government. What will probably keep Yacimovich out of his coalition aren’t her diplomatic views, but his economic ones.

Hence if Obama is hoping for an Israeli leader whose positions on the “peace process” will be closer to his own than Netanyahu’s, he should think again: There isn’t one.

It’s not that they don’t exist in theory: Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both deem an agreement with the Palestinians top priority, fall somewhere to the left of Netanyahu and Yacimovich on specific final-status issues, and are reportedly considering running. There’s only one problem: They have virtually no support. Between them, they have held almost every senior cabinet portfolio, whereas Yacimovich is a second-term MK with no cabinet experience whatsoever. Yet when pollsters asked Israelis last week who should lead the center-left bloc, Yacimovich got more votes than Olmert and Livni combined.

That’s no accident, any more than the fact that Labor – the party that signed the Oslo Accords and has traditionally headed Israel’s self-described “peace camp” – overwhelmingly voted to be led by a woman who deems socioeconomic issues more important than peace talks (“Before we … engage in a struggle for peace, we need to have a state,” as she put it). As I’ve written before, this has been the mainstream Israeli view for years. It just took a while to produce mainstream party leaders who agreed.

Today, Israel has two: Netanyahu and Yacimovich. One of them will be running Israel for the next four years. And the sooner Obama comes to terms with that fact, the better.

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Israeli Poll Shows Labor at a Crossroads

Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

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Earlier this month, I wrote about an Israeli news report suggesting former Kadima party leaders Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni were considering teaming up with former Israeli TV journalist Yair Lapid for the upcoming Knesset elections. One detail in that report was that Lapid had created his own party and was unwilling to leave it to join Kadima, no matter who leads the centrist opposition party. But what if he were willing to join Kadima?

That is the subject of a story in Haaretz today. The Israeli daily reports the results of a poll taken to determine how all the major parties would perform in January’s elections in three different possible scenarios. One of those scenarios had Lapid, Olmert, and Livni together in a “super-party.” And Haaretz reports that such a super-party would win the election. Sort of:

A new centrist party formed by Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid would win more seats in the next Knesset than the Likud, according to a new Haaretz poll. Were such a party to be formed, it would grab 25 seats, compared to Likud’s 24. However, the survey also indicates that, whatever its composition, a right-wing bloc would not lose its Knesset majority….

According to the poll, even if former Prime Minister Olmert and former Kadima leader Livni join forces, or if Livni instead links up with Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, they would face a right-wing bloc, a bloc of “natural partners,” that would retain its majority – meaning that Benjamin Netanyahu would remain prime minister after the January 22 elections. In a worst-case scenario from his perspective, he would just have to sweat a little more before reaching the finish line.

The third scenario would be if the current party composition remains unchanged. In that case, the poll projects a 65-seat governing coalition for the rightist bloc led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, and the Orthodox Shas party.

That first scenario, which projects a one-vote win for the centrist supergroup but a failure to form a coalition, leading Netanyahu’s Likud to put his coalition back together, is an almost exact replay of what actually happened the last time Livni led a party that challenged Netanyahu. In 2009, Livni’s Kadima garnered one more Knesset seat than Netanyahu’s Likud, but was unable to form a coalition. (The Kadima win was less than it seemed; voters wanted a rightist coalition, and they got one.)

But there is a fascinating side story to compliment this one, also on Haaretz’s website. The paper reports that the Labor party, now led by Shelly Yachimovich, is working hard to recruit young talent, leaders from Israel’s social protest movement, and popular military and media figures to run in this winter’s election on the Labor slate. This is fascinating in part because it stands in such contrast not only to the first story, but also to conventional wisdom. As the first Haaretz story shows, in Israel the electoral success of a political party is overwhelmingly dependent on the popularity of its leader. (Just for fun, ask a Western media personality who rails against the Orthodox and Russian immigrant parties to name anyone besides the leader of those parties. They probably can’t.)

And in fact, a Livni-Olmert-Lapid party is considered a supergroup despite the fact that poll respondents were given only three names. Who else is on the ticket? Who cares? Yet the Labor party, which until recently was led by Ehud Barak, is rebuilding from the ground up. It cannot trade on Yachimovich’s name or fame. And the strategy represents an honest grappling with the Israeli left’s freefall. Yachimovich is saying, in effect, this isn’t your father’s Labor party.

It is also, however, risky. The Israeli left has had its clock cleaned in Knesset elections over the past decade because the electorate has moved to the right–at least on the peace process. Yachimovich is branding Labor as being further to the left than it has been under the hawkish Barak. It she is successful, it will be a big victory for a rejuvenated left. If not, it will have been a massive missed opportunity to grab what’s left of the political center before someone else does.

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