A jolt for Labor, Herzog’s ouster may be bad news for Netanyahu
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Analysis

A jolt for Labor, Herzog’s ouster may be bad news for Netanyahu

PM has long used the threat of a national unity government to keep his coalition partners in line; Gabbay or Peretz will likely render that cudgel useless

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with opposition leader Isaac Herzog during a special plenum session marking the 50th anniversary of the Knesset, January 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with opposition leader Isaac Herzog during a special plenum session marking the 50th anniversary of the Knesset, January 19, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Once a powerhouse in Israeli politics and the flagship of the Israeli center-left, the Labor party has again been thrown into turmoil.

Plagued by chronic instability at the helm, the party added Isaac Herzog on Tuesday night to its nearly three-decade-long list of leaders who have failed to win reelection.

Herzog fell badly short of the votes needed to advance to the second round of the party’s leadership race, mustering a measly 16 percent behind former leader Amir Peretz (32%) and ex-Kulanu minister Avi Gabbay (27%). The incumbent leader will be forced to step down in the coming days to make way for either Peretz or Gabbay, who advanced to the second round of voting set for next Monday.

Many have blamed Herzog’s leadership for Labor’s most recent decline. While the Zionist Union (a merger between Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party) managed to net 24 Knesset seats in the 2015 election, the party has since dropped dramatically in opinion polls, scoring as few as nine seats in recent months.

The remaining candidates left to replace Herzog, however, bring new challenges to the already ailing party.

Former Labor party leader Amir Peretz casts his vote at a polling station in Dimona on July 4, 2017. (Flash90)
Former Labor party leader Amir Peretz casts his vote at a polling station in Dimona on July 4, 2017. (Flash90)

Peretz has a checkered reputation. His security credentials include the illustrious position of defense minister, but his stint was tarnished by the contentious 2006 Second Lebanon War, for which he was strongly criticized by the government-appointed Winograd Commission. As a veteran lawmaker who has previously led the party he’ll bring experience to the table, but some see him as a relic of an outdated and failed period of the party history.

Gabbay, on the other hand, came into the leadership race as a certified outsider, having never been a member of the Knesset or even the Labor party. While he may be able to reach new audiences previously inaccessible to Labor, his recent stretch as a minister in Netanyahu’s government and previous admission to having voted for Likud in the past (which he then denied) may put off some left-of-center voters.

Labor party candidate Avi Gabbay seen with supporters outside a polling station in Jerusalem on July 4. 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Labor party candidate Avi Gabbay seen with supporters outside a polling station in Jerusalem on July 4. 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

And what of Herzog’s alliance with Tzipi Livni? His departure could precipitate the breakup of the Zionist Union, with Livni taking her five Knesset seats elsewhere, further diminishing Labor’s influence and credibility.

But just as Herzog’s ouster leaves myriad questions over the future of Labor, it could conceivably herald the demise of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, and it certainly complicates coalition life for Netanyahu.

Three days before the 2015 election, Herzog made an unfortunate gaffe on live television, vowing during an impromptu debate with the prime minister to “keep Netanyahu united.” The words slipped out by mistake; he had clearly intended to say “keep Jerusalem united.” But the snafu, which has since often been tauntingly thrown back at Herzog by pundits and politicians, could turn out to be something of a premonition.

In each of the governments he has headed, Netanyahu has always sought a large coalition to avoid giving any party (other than his Likud) the power to bring it down. If a party holds the ability to break up the government by leaving the coalition, it can use that threat as leverage. The more parties in the coalition, the less likely any single one can hold it ransom.

But despite having surprised pundits and pollsters to gain 31 seats in the 2015 election, tense coalition negotiations left Netanyahu with few options, and he managed to initially muster only a paper-thin majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

So, to avoid being pushed around by his junior partners, Netanyahu created the illusion of an additional coalition partner. Leaving vacant the sought-after cabinet position of foreign minister and periodically expressing the need for a national unity government, Netanyahu made it known that Herzog had the opportunity to join the coalition in the future.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Channel 2 as Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog sits in the studio, March 14, 2015 (Channel 2 News)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to Channel 2 as Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog sits in the studio, March 14, 2015 (Channel 2 News)

The regular rumors of negotiations between Netanyahu and Herzog — the Labor leader at first denied their existence but later confirmed the talks, saying he believed they could have led to a historic peace agreement — sent a clear message to the other parties in the Likud-led coalition: “Don’t think that you can threaten leaving because there is someone else lined up right behind you,” the prime minister tacitly told his ministers.

Herzog thus became Netanyahu’s coalition linchpin. If there was a genuine possibility of Labor joining the government at the drop of a hat, the immense power that each of the smaller party ostensibly held would dissipate altogether.

Tuesday’s primary election, however, put an end to Netanyahu’s use of Labor as a buffer.

While Peretz and Gabbay have both sat as ministers around Netanyahu’s cabinet table, they also have both resigned in opposition to his policies. And viewing Herzog’s demise, in no small part due to his perceived willingness to get in bed with the prime minister, both have positioned themselves as alternatives to Netanyahu and are hostile to any talk of joining him in the coalition.

Recent months have seen rifts open up between Netanyahu and every single one of his coalition partners. He has so far been able to prevent those disagreements from threatening to bring down the government.

But with Herzog gone, so too goes Netanyahu’s safety net.

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