Israel Pulse

How Israel's left could challenge Netanyahu

Article Summary
If they're going to beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the next elections, the three Zionist leftist parties must unite.

The Israeli peace camp can defeat the right in the next election, facing a prime minister the police have already recommended for indictment in at least two cases of bribery and may yet face additional ones by the next election. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit may actually decide to indict him by then. They are also facing a minister of welfare (Haim Katz, also of the Likud) who is expected to stand trial for bribery pending a hearing. And then there is Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, a convicted criminal who already served time in prison and yet, much to the country’s shame, returned to the government and even to the ministry where he first committed his crime, only to be investigated again for additional crimes. It would be hard for the current coalition to ask the public for its trust for another four years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is far from enjoying the support of a majority of the country. He relies on the backing of about a quarter of the public to form a very narrow coalition. Because he is dependent on the smaller parties, he has a hard time fulfilling his promises. In the past, his electoral defeats were always a knockout, while his victories came down to a sparse few points.

In 1996, for example, when Israel had direct elections for its prime minister, Netanyahu defeated Shimon Peres by less than one percentage point, while the Likud’s Knesset faction had fewer seats than the Labor Party. Three years later, in 1999, Netanyahu was defeated in another direct election, this time pitting him against Labor’s Ehud Barak. When he ran again as head of the Likud in 2006, the party won just 12 seats and Netanyahu was almost deposed. After the 2009 election, Netanyahu managed to put together a narrow coalition even though the Likud under his leadership won 27 seats, while Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni, won 28 seats.

When he called an early election in 2012, Netanyahu felt it necessary to unite his party with Yisrael Beitenu, headed by Avigdor Liberman. Even running together, these two parties lost 11 seats. Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, whose new party won a remarkable 19 seats, almost formed a coalition, though it was Netanyahu who did so in the end.

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In the last election, in 2015, the Likud headed by Netanyahu won 30 seats, while Labor under Isaac Herzog won an impressive 24 seats. The only reason that Netanyahu was able to form a coalition was because his rival, Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon, decided to join him with 10 seats. Throughout this term, Netanyahu has found himself politically dependent on this uneasy partnership.

The predominant feeling that Israelis are shifting to the right is laughable, given the number of people who were historically on the right and have shifted to the center. Parties and people who insisted for decades on slogans such as, “Not one inch!” (no withdrawal from the occupied territories) have long since forgotten that time-worn mantra. Labor has already forgotten that it once included a “Group for the Integrity of the Land of Israel.” The “Princes of the Likud” (Ehud Olmert, Dan Meridor, Livni, Roni Milo and many others) have admitted their mistake and come to support a two-state solution. The permanent solution that receives the most widespread support among Israelis is the creation of a Palestinian state. The current and furthest right government in Israel considers dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization to be the most natural thing in the world, and it clings to the 1993 Oslo Accord, which was just an interim agreement, as if it were God’s law, handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In 1977, in the wake of the terrible shock of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the country’s politics experienced a tectonic shift (Likud won the elections for the first time). Ever since then, there has been a center-left camp that makes up about 40% of the Knesset and a center-right camp of similar size. The left cannot cobble together a bloc that would prevent the right from forming a coalition without the support of the Arab parties, while the right cannot form a bloc to stop the left without the support of the ultra-Orthodox. That is the story of Israeli politics over the last generation. The taboo against basing a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the creation of a Palestinian state and engaging with the PLO was broken in 1993, but there has been no dramatic shift in the way that people vote. With the two blocs more or less equal in size, important incidents specific to a particular time (such as Netanyahu’s deceptive 2015 election-day warning that Arab voters were heading out to vote "in droves") can sometimes shift the balance one way or the other.

No argument is more mistaken than the claim that there is no replacement for the man who blocked all progress toward peace, who lost Israel the support of American Jewry, who instigated greater hostility to Israel among the Democratic Party in the United States and who helped pass legislation that delivered a serious blow to Israeli democracy. People like Labor Party Chair Avi Gabbay and Meretz Chair Tamar Zandberg as well as prominent members of the Knesset like Hatnua head Livni can lead the peace camp to victory if they work together boldly. Here are three practical suggestions:

  1. Opposition head Herzog left politics following his appointment as chief of the Jewish Agency. And so, I propose to immediately appoint Livni to this position. The reason I brought the Leader of the Opposition Law before the Knesset in 2000 was because as justice minister, I already knew I would get a majority, while as a member of the opposition, there was no chance that it would pass. In many ways, the model is based on the British system. It accords official status to the opposition leader, granting that person the right to address the Knesset right after the prime minister in any parliamentary debate and makes the position one of the symbols of government in Israel. A successful opposition leader can set the agenda for the opposition as a whole, and not just herself. Gabbay must not hesitate in making this appointment. Not only has Livni already served in the role, she is also capable of dealing with Netanyahu’s rhetoric and overcoming it.

  2. A new faction should be formed during the Knesset’s summer recess. It would include Labor under Gabbay, Hatnua headed by Livni, and Meretz under the leadership of Zandberg. Each party would remain independent and free to make the decision on whether to run together or separately in the next election. The new faction would have 29 Knesset members, making it almost equal in size to the Likud at 30. Given the problematic composition of the Likud (such as Knesset member David Bitan, who is suspected of committing criminal offenses, or Oren Hazan’s scandal-ridden term), it can be far more influential than the Likud is now.

  3. The peace camp headed by Gabbay must speak clearly about its plans. The only times the Labor Party won in the last few decades were when leaders like Yitzhak Rabin (who said he would reach an agreement with the Palestinians in six to nine months) and Ehud Barak (who promised to pull Israel out of Lebanon within a year) made concrete promises and fulfilled them. Now, a statement that a government headed by Gabbay would partition the country within a predetermined amount of time in order to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state is both essential to Zionism and the key to political success.

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Found in: zionist camp, labor party, benjamin netanyahu, israeli politics, knesset, tzipi livni

Yossi Beilin has served in various positions in the Knesset and in Israeli government posts, the last of which was justice and religious affairs minister. After resigning from the Labor Party, Beilin headed Meretz. He was involved in initiating the Oslo process, the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement, the Geneva Initiative and Birthright.

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