Israel elections 101: Can revitalized Labor stop country's shift to the right?

For years, a discredited and distrusted Labor party has been sidelined as Israel has moved to the right. But a surprise alliance with Tzipi Livni is reaching for the center and outpolling Netanyahu's Likud.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
A dog sits near signs that read 'Democracy now' and 'Labor' during a demonstration to protest a controversial proposed law that would define Israel as 'the Jewish state,' in Jerusalem, in November.

When Middle East peace talks collapsed after the 2000 Camp David summit and the second Palestinian intifada erupted, the biggest political loser may well have been Israel’s Labor party.

Its historical power already diminished by the rise of the rightist Likud, leftist Labor was exiled to Israel’s political wilderness after the failure of Camp David. The party that founded and led the Jewish state for its first three decades was no longer trusted with making critical decisions about security or diplomacy.

Today the political right in Israel is still ascendant, but with elections just three months away, polls are showing that Labor is once again relevant after a sudden move toward the political center. 

Party chairman Isaac Herzog is betting that an unorthodox political marriage with Tzipi Livni, a daughter of the rival Likud who became a champion of peace talks, will help upstage Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and bring Labor back to power at the head of a government more committed to negotiations and compromise with the Palestinians.

Mr. Herzog and Ms. Livni, whose firing by Netanyahu was at the center of the governing coalition crisis that has led to early elections, surprised Israelis by announcing that their parties would not only mount a joint campaign, but that the two of them would take turns as prime minister in a two-year rotation if they win.

Political commentators initially ridiculed that as a foolish election gimmick in which Herzog promised Livni, whose six-seat party is forecast to disappear in the next elections, far more power than she could win on her own. 

But so far, public opinion has reacted favorably to the unusual pledge: recent polls indicate Labor would get the largest number of seats in the parliament as enthusiasm for Netanyahu and the Likud wanes. A poll released Monday by the Knesset TV channel gave Labor/Livni 23 seats and Likud 21. There are 120 seats total in the Knesset.

“It’s not that people are just saying ‘anyone but Netanyahu.’ They want change. [Herzog] has tapped into that craving for something new,” says Chemi Shalev, a political columnist for the daily Haaretz newspaper. “He did the unexpected. He created this power couple, which is very novel in Israeli politics. He brought in a new element.’’

The main challenge confronting the Livni-Labor alliance in its goal of leading Israel, however, could be finding suitable coalition partners.

Polls show a majority of Israelis favoring right wing or religious parties, but analysts say Herzog might be able to form a majority coalition by partnering with some of the center-right leaders who have become estranged from Netanyahu.

Moshe Kahlon, until a few years ago a rising star in Likud, recently declared himself part of the “moderate” center-right that favors territorial compromise, a remark viewed by analysts as intended to strike a contrast with Likud’s more ideological politicians. His new party, Kulanu (All of us), is forecast to win eight to 10 seats in the next Knesset.

Even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, who is known for his ultra-nationalist views, does not oppose in principle a territorial compromise with the Palestinians and has been trying to position himself to the left of Likud.

Another potential partner would be Yair Lapid, a centrist whose “Yesh Atid” party has championed cost-of-living issues for the middle class and who is also dovish on the peace process. He, too was fired recently by Netanyahu.

“The conventional wisdom that the right wing has it in the bag is not pertinent anymore, because Kahlon, Lapid, and Lieberman might go with someone else,” Mr. Shalev says.

The same goes for ultra-Orthodox religious parties. Once considered Netanyahu’s “natural” partners, they are still bitter about being left out of his current government. The United Torah Judaism party is ideologically agnostic on issues of national security and territorial concessions, and could also tip the scales in Herzog’s direction if he shows deference on issues of religion an state.

“The ultra-Orthodox are longing for revenge, longing to show that anyone who does not include them in a coalition is going to pay a price,’’ says Shalev.

If Labor does manage a return to power, it will be in spite of major demographic and political trends that have favored right-wing parties for a generation, including the absorption of a million Russian immigrants and the rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox population. Voters from Israel’s one-fifth Arab minority, many of whom once supported Labor, now tend to back Arab nationalist parties.

But Labor’s greatest vulnerability was its ongoing identification with the failed Oslo peace accords started by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago, which reinforced the idea it had become overly dovish. Newer centrist parties stole votes by promoting peace talks, but claiming to be tougher negotiators.

“The Israeli public turned from Labor because, unlike Labor leaders, it doesn’t believe there is a realistic chance for peace with the Palestinians anytime soon,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an American Israeli author. “Labor is widely perceived here as too naïve to manage Israel’s security threats in an increasingly dangerous region.”

The alliance with Livni helps move Labor back into the center on foreign policy, say analysts. For years, she drew votes away from Labor at the helm of the centrist Kadima party – founded by Ariel Sharon when he boldly bolted from Likud – and then her “Hatnuah” party, and positioned herself as a tough standard bearer of peace talks with the Palestinians.

“Labor has never given up on wanting to be within the consensus of Israeli society,’’ said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based public opinion expert and political consultant.

Livni, the daughter of parents who fought in the militia run by Likud founder Menachem Begin, also brings the experience in top foreign policy posts that Herzog lacks. Livni has served as foreign minister, spearheaded two rounds of negotiations with the Palestinians, and sat in two cabinets that waged war with Hamas.

Herzog is a gifted politico and lawyer who spent decades rising through the party ranks. He is also an Israeli political blueblood because his father, Chaim, was a former Israeli president, and his grandfather was a chief rabbi.

But with a diminutive figure and a nasal voice, he also lacks the authoritative and charismatic stage presence of Netanyahu, or the tough-guy image of Labor’s renown generals-turned-prime ministers like Ehud Barak and Mr. Rabin.

He’s reportedly hoping to cut a deal with another former Likudnik, former army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz. Shalev says he's also taking lessons to sound more assertive in television appearances.

“Herzog has the great advantage of people having low expectations of him. The assumption is that he’s not charismatic enough, not powerful enough, or doesn’t exude the ruthlessness that Israelis look for in their leaders,” says Shalev.

“He comes across as nerdy…. He’s not the favorite, but he’s a far better candidate to be [prime minister] than anyone who have imagined two months ago.”

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