Barring earth-shattering events Benyamin Netanyahu will again be made premier as a result of the March 17th Knesset elections. There is no doubt about this. Even the most cursory glance at the public opinion polls clearly shows this. The Likud’s coalition will be right wing-religious, and its partners will most likely be the Bayit Hayehudi (Jewish Homeland) party of Minister Naftali, the ultra-orthodox parties, the Yisrael Beinteinu party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the new party of former Likudnik Moshe Kahalon. The next Netanyahu coalition could include as many as 70 out of the 120 Knesset members.
It isn’t only the electoral opinion polls on the March 17th vote that indicate the Labor Party will come up short. This can also be seen in the opinion polls indicating that Netanyahu heads by a large margin all politicians when it comes to public confidence in terms of the ability to best protect Israel’s defense and foreign affairs interests including the existential ones, and not Labor Party leader Yitzhak Herzog, a novice in defense and foreign affairs with very little statesmanship experience. His partner in the joint Labor-Tenua list,, MK Tzipi Livni, has experience as foreigner minister, but her party is very weak in getting votes.
In short, neither can stand opposite Netanyahu in terms of national stature, and the Premier emphasized this in his inaugural campaign speech. He simply said that it’s either Bibi or Tzipi and Buzhi (Herzog’s nickname). There’s more to Netanyahu’s advantage when one examines the stances of the various parties. Of all the Zionist and Jewish parties only the left wing Meretz party clearly supports the Labor-Tenua joint list. And the fact is that at least two parties (the ultra-orthodox Agudat Yisrael party and Yisrael Beiteinu ) openly declare that they will not sit in a coalition with Meretz. And this likely is the stance of other parties as well.
It is difficult for the Labor Party to accept its standing in Israeli politics. Labor and its Mapai predecessor ruled Israel unchallenged from 1948-67 and also in the years before the establishment of the state. In 1977 Likud leader Menahem Begin produced the big change when the right wing leader won the elections in what is known as the political upheaval.
Since then, with the exception of the electoral victories by Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, Labor has been playing second fiddle in the political arena. The frustration of the party leadership can be seen in the astonishing fact that in the past 11 years or so Labor has changed its leadership no less than 8 times! And three of the former leaders even bolted Labor and joined other parties (Shimon Peres to Kadima and Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna to Tenua of Livni). The Labor Party Party is supposed to be the leader of the peace movement in Israel and its weakness is one of the reasons why the Israeli peace camp is in such disarray. The Labor Party has even had its status reduced to that of observer in the Socialist International as it cannot afford to pay its dues to the organization.
The Labor party will remain a non-ruling force for many years to come and it should reconcile itself to this. This doesn’t mean however that the Party shouldn’t struggle hard to win power or at least be in a center-left coalition. This is its duty and obligation as head of the opposition. But rather it should accept the fact that it will most likely remain in the opposition until the Israeli public becomes fed up with Likud rule for one reason or another rather than suddenly becoming enamored with the ideology and policies of Labor. And above all Labor must refrain from joining a Likud-religious parties coalition, as this will greatly harm its electoral chances in the future. The Likud will eventually fall from power, even if this takes many years.
And what should Labor do if and when it returns to power? One of the main if not most important things is to carry out a unilateral withdrawal from say 80-90% of the West Bank not including the big settlement blocs and the large majority of East Jerusalem not including the Old City. This will aid in preserving the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel, a strong Labor Party belief. Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev has already worked out a plan to this effect and it can serve as a basis for further policy discussions. There is no chance of an Israeli-Palestinian permanent peace agreement, at least for many decades if not generations. The gaps are seemingly unbridgeable and thus a center-left coalition will have no choice but to carry bout a unilateral withdrawal rather than continue the status quo.
In the meantime Labor can be a fighting opposition against Likud settlement policy in heavily populated Arab areas in Jerusalem and in the West Bank. Labor can go back to its ideological roots and lead the way in the struggle against the massive poverty in Israel and the very high cost of housing. Herzog is a former minister of social welfare and can lead the way on these things.
I don’t think the Herzog-Livni alliance will last long as both will try to upstage the other as leader of the opposition after the elections. In any event, Livni is certainly not a social democrat on socio-economic issues, unlike the now defunct party Mapam, a former alignment partner with Labor.
Richard Bell founded and edited Israel Media Digest from 1990-2008.