Yachimovich offensive a bid for Labor leadership

Preparing for a term in the opposition and for next year's party primaries, former Labor head Shelly Yachimovich has come out against the Zionist Camp's dual leadership, taking aim in particular at Tzipi Livni.

al-monitor Israeli Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich delivers a speech on Jan. 22, 2013, at the party's headquarters in Kfar Saba, central Israel. Photo by GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images.

Topics covered

zionist camp, tzipi livni, shelly yachimovich, labor party, israel, isaac herzog, benjamin netanyahu

May 6, 2015

The first meeting of the Zionist Camp Knesset faction took place May 4 in an especially large conference room in the Knesset building, one of the rewards of being the second-largest party in the legislature. While the meeting was in progress, however, Knesset member Shelly Yachimovich made the rounds of the various news shows, explaining why she had decided to skip the event. Of course she didn’t say so explicitly, but this was Yachimovich's opening salvo in the race to lead the Labor Party — the larger partner in the Zionist Camp — and in the struggle between her and Tzipi Livni, Zionist Camp co-leader and head of Hatnua, over who will be the top woman in that party. Thus the Labor Party proved itself yet again to be a serial eliminator of its leaders. This time, however, with the 2015 elections a mere few weeks in the past, the attempt at political elimination was faster and more pointed than usual.

During the first few moments of the meeting, in a room crammed with Knesset members, their aides and the requisite TV crews, the members of the Zionist Camp still had no idea that Yachimovich was preparing a little surprise for them. They certainly had no idea how much that surprise would contrast the festive nature of their inaugural meeting.

Timing her salvo to coincide with the event, Yachimovich sent text messages to political journalists announcing that she had no intention of accepting the joint leadership of Isaac Herzog and Livni over the Zionist Camp. She claimed that this hybrid leadership had been intended only for the election campaign. Once that campaign was over, she continued, an extension of the two-headed model would be “like castrating the opposition's leadership in advance, and such a move has no democratic, practical or ideological validity.”

Those with a sharp eye noticed that in her announcement, Yachimovich called Herzog by his nickname, Buji, not by his given name, Isaac. Yet it was his given name that Herzog and his staff made a point of using throughout the election campaign, as part of their attempt to create a more serious and respectable image for him. His rivals on the right chose to use his nickname during the campaign.

Yachimovich planned to launch her campaign at just the right moment. When she learned that her rival, Livni, was slated to speak at the beginning of the meeting, immediately after Herzog, she decided that she could wait no longer. She reached the conclusion, and rightfully so, that if she simply let things pass, the current situation would essentially become permanent, making it impossible to challenge. Before embarking on her lone wolf campaign, she consulted with a number of other Knesset members. While they supported her in principle, they also thought that she wasn’t going about it the right way.

That’s how it all happened. While the faction’s Knesset chairman, Eitan Cabel, was telling the meeting, with his typical pathos, about how excited he was to engage in the sacred work of the opposition, he had no idea what Yachimovich was up to. She had effectively stolen the show from the faction’s meeting room.

With the two leaders of the Zionist Camp sitting beside him, Cabel quoted from a column by Israel Prize laureate, author and poet S. Yizhar, who had once served as a parliamentarian for Mapai, one of Labor's founding constituent parties. The article had been written after Labor Party leader Shimon Peres' defeat in the 1981 elections, but it is just as relevant to the party today: “Our side is more right,” wrote Yizhar in the headline. “Without any bitterness, without feeling discouraged and without justifying ourselves, the Labor Party must now head to the opposition. … It must be a vibrant, conscious, sharp and aggressive opposition, whose benches are always full, every day and at every meeting, and it must not allow this wavering government to escape to the corners of the ring. No, it must pummel this government truth by truth, in front of everyone, in the light of day.”

Regardless, it seems as if the Zionist Camp, primarily comprised of Knesset members from the Labor Party, got its oppositional start on the wrong foot. Yair Lapid, chairman of Yesh Atid, might only have 11 seats, but he is already claiming his territory, publicly and in the media, as a fighting member of the opposition. In the meantime, the Labor Party is focusing mainly on internal rivalries.

Both Herzog and Cabel have reacted to Yachimovich's move. They attacked her, as expected, ending up trapped in the very inter-party brawl they had hoped to avoid. At the party's meeting, Herzog declared, “Yachimovich’s statement is spiteful, and could help [Likud leader] Benjamin Netanyahu. I have no intention of breaking up our partnership with Tzipi Livni.” In private conversation, Cabel said, “It is unfortunate that she has a real problem internalizing that Herzog is the chairman of the party. Shelly is just putting sticks between the spokes.”

Herzog not only had to deal with his old-new front with Yachimovich, he also had to sustain his effort to convince everyone that the suspicions he was waiting for Netanyahu to ask him to join a unity government, in return for heading the Foreign Ministry, were unfounded. A proposal was raised at the Zionist Camp meeting that the party not join a Netanyahu government at any point, but Herzog's refusal to put it to a vote hardly helped him convince people otherwise. In short, Herzog will always be suspected of conducting negotiations with Netanyahu over the possibility of joining his government. Yachimovich knows this as well.

After almost a decade in the Knesset, Yachimovich wants to be a minister, and she realizes that she must improve her position within the party in advance of the possibility of portfolios being handed out. As far as she is concerned, she should be the first woman in the party to receive a senior post in the government, should such a scenario unfold, simply because she won the first place on the party list in the last primaries. As a former head of Labor, Yachimovich has built a power base among the party’s institutions. Without her, Herzog will have a hard time bringing his party into the government.

At the same time, the clock started ticking toward new primaries the moment the last election was lost. According to party bylaws, internal elections must be held within 14 months of national elections. This clause makes the chairman of the party a kind of lame duck, with a cloud hovering over his or her head. Netanyahu is well aware of this clause in the Labor Party’s constitution. He would therefore prefer to postpone his partnership with Herzog until the primaries are held. After all, he doesn’t want to find himself in a situation where the chair of the party is replaced, and the new leader decides to dissolve the partnership with him.

Should Herzog decide to advance the primaries, it is likely that he will win. Apart from Yachimovich and possibly former Labor head Amir Peretz, who is likely to return to the party, there are no other promising candidates from the outside. Yachimovich sees what lies ahead and is starting to jockey for position. The way she sees it, there are three possible scenarios: primaries, a unity government or both.

On the other hand, Livni now finds herself in the new and unfamiliar arena of party infighting. It is a system as alien to her as she is to it, having joined the Zionist Camp as head of Hatnua shortly before the March 17 elections. What will she do? For now she is receiving the support and protection of Herzog and Cabel. One thing is clear, however. Herzog will have to silence any rebellious murmurings within the party. He has to start learning from the last election, while at the same time becoming a combative opposition, proving that he is not leaning toward joining Netanyahu’s government.

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