Can a Dark-horse Duo Save Israel? The Huldai-Diskin Rumor

After years of right-center and far-right governments, is a center-left coalition for Israel even an option? It is.

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Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, October 22, 2013.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

No one knows how this war will end. No one knows when. No one even can say, for sure, if.

Both sides suffer from dysfunctional leadership coalitions. Both sides' policy decisions are a muddled salad, with incompatible personal ambitions complicating unwinnable debates between pragmatists who favor negotiation, and militarists who believe that the other side – whether it's Hamas or the State of Israel - can, should and must be eliminated.

Unsurprisingly, every dismal, brutal, fundamentally inconclusive, horror-driven, disheartening week of the war has spurred new speculation, fresh assessments, guarded predictions of the war's imminent end, and – as a sign of how inaccurate the predictions have proven – rumors.

In recent days, one of the more intriguing rumors speaks of Operation Protective Edge weakening Benjamin Netanyahu's fractious, acrobatically backbiting core coalition, anchored by three factions at war with Netanyahu (Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi and the far-right bloc of Netanyahu's own Likud) and with each other.

The rumor suggests that prior to new elections, or through some other combination of political events, a new center-left bloc could be created, which might draft Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai as its leader, and thus a potential prime minister to succeed Netanyahu.

Former Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin, an outspoken critic of Netanyahu's policies, and a vocal advocate of advancing a two-state solution in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, has been mentioned as a potential political partner to Huldai.

The source of the rumor remains unclear. But the impetus for the rumor makes considerable sense. For years, Netanyahu's primary political asset has been the perception of his competitors as uncharismatic (Labor's Isaac Herzog, for example), consistently disappointing (Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, for example) or otherwise unsuitable for the rigors and challenges of leading the country.

While Huldai's politics favor a dovish two-state push, his military background – he is a former combat pilot and Israel Air Force brigadier general – would lend weight to a run for high office.

Diskin, meanwhile, has been mentioned as a possible leader for a new centrist party of his own. In a March analysis titled "Can Yuval Diskin Save Israel?", veteran Yedioth Ahronoth commentator Shimon Shiffer cautioned that established parties have a history of hostility toward new marquee arrivals.

"There is no doubt that the parties currently at play will not invite Diskin to lead them, but at the most will suggest that he become part of the existing leadership," Shiffer wrote.

"Nevertheless, it seems that after Netanyahu's third term as prime minister, there is more openness than before about new candidates to lead the state," Shiffer continued. If Netanyahu successfully staves off internal moves to replace him as Likud front-runner, Shiffer wrote, his ruling party might be vulnerable to defeat at the ballot box.

According to Shiffer, "if we are left with Netanyahu for a fourth term, it isn't too a wild guess to point at Diskin as a worthy candidate with a reasonable chance."

Thus far, the war has done wonders for Netanyahu's approval rating. The longer it drags on, however, the more chance there is that the public will grow weary of its course, and of its leader.

After years of right-center and far-right governments, is a center-left coalition for Israel even an option? It is.

With the election of Reuven Rivlin as president – over Netanyahu's objection – and Avigdor Lieberman's dissolution of the Likud-Israel Beiteinu partnership on the very eve of the prime minister's launch of Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu is left with only 19 Knesset seats, less than a sixth of the total in the 120-seat house.

The Likud is no longer the single largest party in the Knesset. Yesh Atid matches it at 19 MKs. If Yair Lapid's party, which includes defectors from Meretz and other left-leaning factions, were to form a bloc with Labor (15 seats), Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah (six), Meretz (six), Kadima (two) and the ultra-Orthodox parties (18), the resulting centrist bloc would have 66 seats.

For the moment, however, Netanyahu seems confident that his luck in life – that of having stubbornly persistent but incompetent competitors – will hold.

As it is, the personalities and ambitions already guiding the center-left in its unending drift through opposition, give every indication of being adept at only one activity: Quashing the candidacies of newcomers who could attract crucial votes, and who could perhaps change the history of this country for the better. 

Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin.Credit: Ofer Vaknin