What should we make of the Dec. 10 “partnership” announcement by Israel’s Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Tnuah Party’s Tzipi Livni? Is Herzog a shrewd pragmatist who is willing to share power in order to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from the prime minister’s office? Or is he a just another politician who in an attempt at pre-election positioning has miscalculated by handing half of a planned prime minister’s term in office to the far more ambitious and self-serving former justice minister, whose party was expected to disappear in the Knesset elections scheduled for March?
Israeli commentators were arguing both sides of that point following the pair’s surprise announcement that their parties would run on a single center-left list. In a novel move, the two politicians agreed to rotate in the prime minister’s job: Herzog would assume the office in the first two years of the term and then cede it to Livni for the final two, or until the Knesset dissolved itself.
Early polling showed Herzog-Livni neck and neck with Netanyahu, who, while deeply unpopular, is viewed by Israelis as the most qualified for the job. In addition, the mathematics of coalition building favors Netanyahu, since the majority of Israelis vote for the center, right or Orthodox parties — the prime minister’s natural allies. But a meaningful attempt by Herzog and Livni to reach out to centrist voters who want a two-state solution and yet doubt that a secure agreement can be reached with the Palestinians could deprive Netanyahu of votes.
We will almost certainly see more political partnerships in the coming weeks. That’s what coalition government is all about. Indeed, there are reports of an agreement in the works between Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, who recently announced the formation of his own party.
Some predict that such a Lapid-Kahlon move could lead Netanyahu to ally with Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett of the Orthodox Jewish Home Party. Bennett supports building settlements, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and would annex part of the West Bank to Israel, a move that would contradict Israel’s stance against unilateral moves. A Netanyahu-Bennett alliance would drag Netanyahu further to the right and present some interesting international challenges for coalition leadership.
But there’s a long way from now until March 17. And while politics makes strange bedfellows in any democracy, Israel’s governing coalition system invites strained unions and magnifies the need to make compromises in order to win elections.
To the extent coalition-building challenges bring everyone toward the center, the process can be productive. More dramatic moves right or left, however, will not likely create sustainable governing partnerships. You need only look to the string of failed governments in the past 20 years for proof.