Israel’s center-left needs common election agenda

It's highly unlikely that Israel's center-left parties will form a coalition to run together in the 2019 election, but they should not abandon efforts to find common ground to fight for.

al-monitor Avi Gabbay, the new leader of Israel's center-left Labor Party, gestures as he delivers his victory speech after winning the party's primary runoff at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel, July 10, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

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corruption, benjamin netanyahu, israeli elections, likud, right-wing, israeli government, israeli politics

Nov 19, 2018

The resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has destabilized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, and one cannot exclude now the possibility of early elections. But whether Netanyahu calls for snap elections or holds them as scheduled on November 2019, the important fight has already begun: What will these elections really be about, what major debate will become the key issue that brings voters to the polls? Netanyahu will try to get people to forget about all the corruption scandals and go back to focusing on the Iranian threat that is so near and dear to him. The question is whether he will succeed in forcing this convenient agenda item into the political arena, or the opposition parties manage to raise the issues that are really important to them.

One thing is clear. The issue that led to these elections will not end up being the bone of contention between the two blocs. By the time the election is held, people will have a hard time remembering what shocked so much the political system. The Nov. 14 resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman did not cause any major rift in Israeli society. He had enjoyed this honorable title, but didn’t do much with it. Neither he nor his ministry were really in charge of Israel’s defense policy. It is no wonder then that during his time in the most prestigious position in the Israeli government after the prime minister, he not only failed to increase his popularity but even lost some of the limited support he had before he took the post.

I can never forget the discussion I had with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert right after his election victory in 2006. Amir Peretz, who headed the Labor Party, expressed his willingness to join Olmert’s coalition, but demanded in return that he be given the Finance Ministry so that he could influence the distribution of funds in a more equitable manner. As leader of Meretz, I recommended to Olmert that he consider Peretz’ request favorably. Olmert responded with a firm no. He told me that the Finance Ministry was too important to him, and that he wanted to put one of his own people in charge, instead of someone whose economic worldview was so different from his own. Instead, Labor was offered the defense portfolio.

Olmert told me that he would do exactly what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had done before him regarding the Defense Ministry. Although Sharon had appointed Labor member Binyamin Ben Eliezer as his defense minister back in 2001, he paid little attention to anything Ben Eliezer actually said and communicated directly with the heads of the various security departments instead. Netanyahu did the exact same thing when he appointed Liberman as his defense minister after firing Moshe Ya’alon (who, as a former chief of staff, was harder to circumvent).

Netanyahu made an unpopular decision when he convinced the members of his cabinet to agree to a cease-fire in Gaza without first trying to deliver a debilitating blow to Hamas. But the way that he presented his decision as one between another round of violence that would leave both sides at the same starting point and a cease-fire and containment of Hamas’s heavy bombardment of the country’s southern settlements was misleading. The only reason Netanyahu was faced with this dilemma in the first place was because he had no interest in involving the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in any of his Gaza maneuvering.

To a large degree, he was continuing what Sharon had done previously in Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. It’s in his interest to disassociate himself from the principle reached between Israel and the PLO, by which a common solution would be found for the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His (Netanyahu's) goal was to separate Gaza from the West Bank, so he had no interest in engaging the legitimate Palestinian leadership in dialogue over Gaza’s fate. As soon as he took that option off the table, he was left with just two choices, and he picked the one that made the most sense. That should hardly earn him a round of applause.

It can only be hoped that the parties to the left of the Likud are not tempted to turn Gaza into the main issue of the next election campaign. Instead of passing Netanyahu on the right, they should leave that to HaBayit HaYehudi chair Naftali Bennett. He will make the same promise as Liberman that if he gets enough votes, he will be the next defense minister and will obliterate Hamas once and for all. Efforts by the left to out-right the right would lack credibility. Voters who want to throw their support behind right-wing positions prefer to go straight to the source: the right-wing parties themselves.

Each party left of the Likud has its own distinct emphases, so the chances of forming a coalition of center-left parties to run together in 2019 tends toward zero. Nevertheless, this does not mean that they should abandon efforts to find some common denominator, which would turn the election into a kind of referendum on all the most critical issues on Israel’s agenda.

One such issue is corruption. Scandals of unprecedented severity have come to light in the last two years. The most serious of them is the “submarine scandal,” in which the police have recommended the indictment of several people who are very close to Netanyahu. Meanwhile, the police have also recommended that Netanyahu himself be indicted for bribery in other cases. Netanyahu will do everything he can to avoid addressing this point, mainly by claiming that he still hasn’t been indicted by the attorney general’s office. In this sense, a snap election could be more convenient for him, since there is little chance that the indictment will be served before the election. It therefore remains for the opposition parties to keep the corruption issue high on the agenda. They must not ignore the fact that the prime minister, who also happens to be the Likud’s candidate, is contesting the election with a cloud hanging over him like no other candidate in the past. The slogan “Stop the corruption!” will be more relevant in the next election campaign than ever before.

The other contentious issue is Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. Given that there is an almost equal number of Jews and Arabs in the land west of the Jordan River, the Zionist opposition’s election promise must be that it will set the borders separating Israel and the Palestinians in the next term, if not sooner (similar to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s promise in 1992 that he would reach an agreement with the Palestinians in six to nine months, or Ehud Barak’s promise in 1999 that he would leave Lebanon within a year, whether with an agreement or unilaterally).

If the opposition parties agree to focus on these two issues while preserving for themselves the right to act independently on other important issues such as religion and state and human rights, the upcoming election campaign could offer a real alternative to right-wing rule, and people in the opposition would come out and fight for the country’s very soul.

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