With the Herzog-Livni merger, an opposition materializes

Labor lost the last five elections by driving centrist voters to the right. Now its leader is trying something different, and cunning, to challenge Netanyahu

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Isaac Herzog (left) and Tzipi Livni (right) hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014, announcing a unity deal. (photo credit: Flash90)
Isaac Herzog (left) and Tzipi Livni (right) hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014, announcing a unity deal. (photo credit: Flash90)

It doesn’t make sense. Labor party leader Isaac Herzog polls at a steady 15 Knesset seats. Hatnua’s Tzipi Livni, meanwhile, struggles to hold on to the four-seat minimum required to pass the Knesset’s electoral threshold.

So when one tries to understand the new rotation deal inked between the two politicians on Wednesday, the key question is not why Livni thought it was a good idea, but why Herzog did. Why would the Labor chief concede so much – half his term if he is elected prime minister – to a political partner with so little to offer?

It is a question that goes to the heart of Herzog’s strategy for finally unseating three-term prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The left has lost five consecutive national elections. But it didn’t lose them to the right. Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, many left-leaning Israelis have voted center and even center-right as a signal of their distrust of Palestinian intentions – and of Israeli politicians who urge them to rely on those intentions.

Netanyahu, who will be in his seventh consecutive year in power by Election Day on March 17, won the last two elections on the strength of those centrist votes. As a September poll by the Knesset Channel (Israel’s C-SPAN) noted, only one-quarter of Israelis believe Netanyahu’s views represent the Israeli right. Most Israelis believe he is a centrist.

In the Knesset, it was the 25 centrist seats of Livni’s Hatnua and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid that gave Netanyahu his commanding majority in the outgoing coalition, and centrists such as Moshe Kahlon and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party who, if all goes according to Netanyahu’s plan, appear slated to give him the necessary seats to form the next. (Shas has sat in Labor governments before; Kahlon, a former Likud minister, has emphatically said he is not wedded to a Likud-led coalition.)

Yet Israel’s political center is actually far larger than the parties who formally declare themselves to be “centrist.” On the key issue that defines the left-right axis, Palestinian statehood, polls have shown that as many as half of those who vote for the explicitly right-wing parties Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and even Jewish Home actually support Palestinian statehood. Countless polls suggest that Israeli centrists – usually defined by pundits as those who support Palestinian independence while distrusting Palestinian willingness to reciprocate with peace – vote for the right because they hear their skepticism reflected in the rhetoric of right-wing leaders.

For 20 years, Herzog’s predecessors – Labor has seen 11 leadership changes in 22 years – have been fighting a losing battle against this vast, inchoate center.

But on Wednesday night, Herzog launched the left’s most dramatic bid since the 1990s for the Israeli center’s trust.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset during a vote on a bill to dissolve the 19th Knesset, December 8, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset during a vote on a bill to dissolve the 19th Knesset, December 8, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Herzog has spent months crafting a new electoral strategy for the Labor party that aims to pull the center away from Netanyahu.

The Labor leader has largely abandoned the left-wing rhetoric about reconciliation and peace, and argues for the simpler and more widely supported idea of separation. Without the two-state solution, he tells Israelis in speeches and media interviews, Israel will remain entangled in Palestinian affairs – and in Palestinian political dysfunction and extremism.

Now Herzog is solidifying that strategy, and made a dramatic show on Wednesday of sacrificing his personal ambitions for the benefit of the cause. A vote for him, he now says, is literally also a vote for the centrist Livni.

And even as he cemented the centrist strategy of his own party, a move that early polls suggest will find favor with voters, he headed off a significant threat to his dominance of the center-left: Yair Lapid. Herzog, not Lapid, now sits squarely atop what is by far the largest anti-Netanyahu bloc.

In one fell swoop, Herzog pushed ahead of the pack and transformed a lackluster political position into the most significant threat to Netanyahu in a crowded field. From this position of strength, Herzog hopes to attract centrists who have come to dislike Netanyahu, leftists who voted for other parties or causes because they did not believe a Labor vote would bring a Labor victory, and perhaps even liberal Arabs who may find their political voices sidelined in a new unified Arab list.

And since few Israeli governments survive past their third year – the next government will be Israel’s 34th in 67 years – simply by taking the first two-year turn in the rotation, the Labor leader made certain he was probably not giving up as much in reality as the terms of the rotation agreement might suggest.

Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014, announcing a unity deal. (Flash90)
Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog hold a joint press conference in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014, announcing a unity deal. (Flash90)

The first signal of the potential threat that Herzog’s shrewd maneuver may signify for the incumbent prime minister came in the Likud’s official response to the announcement Wednesday night:

“Now Boujie [Herzog] and Tzipi can compete over who will surrender and concede more,” came the unusually acerbic response. “To the citizens of Israel it is clear that these elections are between the left camp headed by Herzog and Livni, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud leading the national camp.”

The accusation that the new alliance would “surrender and concede,” and the emphatic labeling of the pairing as “the left camp,” almost certainly presage the Likud’s counter-campaign to the new Herzog strategy – and signal that both sides understand the significance of Labor’s gambit for the center.

Indeed, the very fact that it is now possible to speak of “both sides” is significant. For the first time in a long time, polls suggest there are now two sides in an Israeli election.

It is hard to overstate how dangerous this is for Netanyahu. The prime minister has a primary race to win over the next three weeks, and his primary voters, by and large, are not centrists. But after (and of course, if) he wins the primary, he will face a complicated challenge. Jewish Home is attracting hundreds of thousands of voters on his right flank; Kahlon and Lapid, through sheer personal charisma, each draws perhaps 10 seats on his left; and now a growing electoral power has emerged on the other side of the aisle that could form a credible anchor for an alternative coalition to his own.

Pulled simultaneously to the right and to the left, Netanyahu must find a way to please everyone or risk losing it all.

Until Wednesday, both right and left saw the election as a referendum on Netanyahu. While the race is still Netanyahu’s to lose – his electoral path to a coalition is still shorter than Herzog’s – Labor’s dramatic move to the center has broken the old rules and brought an unexpected degree of uncertainty to the race.

And Herzog, seen by most Israelis as a grey, uncharismatic public servant, has shown a new side to his personality, a streak of political cunning and strategic ability more often associated with the man he is trying to unseat.

The race, at long last, is on.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed