In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu finally caved to the political realities of governing with an ever-shrinking majority and called for early parliamentary elections. Scheduled for April 2019, the elections have triggered a rush for new alliances. One of the earliest casualties in this drive for claiming the mantel of leadership has been the Zionist Union, an alliance between the Labor party and Hatnuah, which ceased to exist after Labor leader Avi Gabbay decided to pull the plug on the five-year-old alliance.
Commenting on this week’s dramatic break-up of the Zionist Union, Yedioth Ahronoth’s Sima Kadmon points out the underlying reasons for the fall-out between Labor’s Avi Gabbay and Hatnuah’s Tzipni Livni: “There are no good and bad guys in this story, just politics. Livni was right to worry that Gabbay cannot deliver the goods. The Zionist Union has been struggling in the polls and things are only getting worse and Gabbay is unable to win over new party members who would tip the scales in his favor.... What happened between Livni and Gabbay should have happened long ago. There is no point in being polite; the two couldn't bear each other. The only reason it lasted this long was mutual interest. Gabbay knows that Livni is an asset to the Zionist Union. And even though he was heard saying that the split will strengthen the Labor Party, it's doubtful that he actually believes it.”
According to a Haaretz report, one of the reasons Labor’s Gabbay decided to part ways with Ms. Livni was because Livni “refused to rule out joining a future coalition headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.... Asked why he chose to break up the partnership in a public way, Gabbay said: ‘I grew up in the hood. And in the hood I learned that if they beat you up you hit back and don't run off to make peace’.... In polls taken since Gabbay's announcement, Labor is expected to take seven to eight Knesset seats with Livni's Hatnuah teetering on the edge of passing the 3.25 percent threshold, with one poll saying she wouldn't make it in and another giving her five Knesset seats.”
Mr. Gabbay’s announcement seems to have caught Ms. Livni by surprise, which some have seen as a ruthless political act. But Ben Dror-Yemini, writing for Ynet, believes Ms. Livni is likely to bounce back from this setback, even though it is not likely that she will present a challenge to Mr. Netanyahu: “Across the Israeli political spectrum, Livni is one of the most experienced, articulate and successful people. She led the Kadima Party to 28 Knesset seats in 2009, one more than Netanyahu’s Likud. When she linked up with the Labor Party in 2013, the party doubled its strength. Livni has plenty to offer. In order for her to overcome the rut she is in she must find a way for her true self to prevail over the negative portrayals. And, assuming she just doesn’t give up, she certainly has her work cut out for her.”
The Israeli left’s diminished standing in the polls is nothing new, but Israeli observer Gideon Levy goes so far as to argue, in a recent op-ed for Haaretz, that aside from one or two very small political forces, the entire Israeli political spectrum is firmly grounded on the right: “The sad and unbelievable joke: Israel fancies this a rift on the left; as if there are seriously two camps in Israel, left and right, locked in fierce battle over the face of the nation. There is no left, not even half a left. There is only a right, in different forms.... Most leaders of Israeli political parties are former Likudniks: Livni, Gabbay, Avigdor Lieberman, Ayelet Shaked, Naftali Bennett, Moshe Ya’alon and Moshe Kahlon. Orly Levy-Abekasis also grew up in a Likud household. Right, center, supposed left – they all came out of the Likud.... In the face of all this, no one stands up to shout that the emperor has no clothes. Our politics are disabled. It is missing a vital organ. It has no left.”
Times of Israel commentator Eric Lee suggests that Labor’s demise, and the decline of the left more broadly, is due to historical trends that transcend Israeli politics: “The Labor Party looks set to receive fewer seats in the Knesset than at any other time in its history. There is even the possibility, albeit a slim one, that it will disappear entirely by not reaching the 3.25% threshold. Considering that a generation ago, this was a party which had completely dominated political life in Israel since independence — and before — this is an extraordinary development.... I would argue that the problem is not this or that leader. Instead, the decline of Israeli social democracy (and I include Meretz in this picture) is part of a process that has been occurring across the world over many years.”
In the absence of a credible opposition led by Labor, Israeli observers have begun looking to other political forces and leaders to mount a challenge against PM Netanyahu’s Likud party. According to Times of Israel’s Dan Perry, “it is probably the center – led by Lapid or Gantz – that has the best chance of being an anchor party with enough seats to come close enough to Likud to make the blocs math relevant again. If they do this they have a shot.... Lapid and Gantz probably know all this. The question is whether one of them is prepared to take the passenger seat, and serve as defense or foreign minister under the other. If not, they may well find themselves in that same position under Netanyahu in a few months. And while that may still look like an improvement in dark times, it would also be an opportunity wasted, to be sure.”
Finally, the ever-greater proliferation of political forces and their increasingly personality-based orientation has become a source of concern for many in Israel. The subject is taken up, with some urgency, by this Jerusalem Post editorial, which notes that “On the surface, it would appear that the large number of parties is a sign of a healthy democracy, offering voters a plurality of choices where everyone, no matter their background or ideologies, can find representation. Unfortunately, we are not spoiled by choice. Many of the parties currently enjoying media coverage are driven by political egos rather than a solid platform.... [T]his is not healthy. Netanyahu dissolved the Knesset when he no longer had a functional coalition capable of mustering a majority vote. If the next Knesset yet again comprises many smaller parties of indeterminate principles and platforms, it will remain barely functional, without a majority bloc.”