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.