Shelly Yacimovich’s Extreme Political Makeover

Once a firecracker of political punditry, Shelly Yacimovich has been sliding to the amorphous center for the sake of mainstream appeal. Could she dethrone Bibi?

Until recently, there was a big question mark floating above Shelly Yacimovich. People wondered, Is she the one? As in, Could she be the one to resurrect the left and lead the moribund Labor party to victory for the first time since 1999?

She was certainly trying. She's poised, relatable and intelligent. She keeps her head up and her views – at least publicly - close to the center. One thing's for sure: she's the best chance Labor has to reach the throne since Ehud Barak first ran some 13 years ago.

She wasn’t always so calculating. There was a time when the name Shelly Yacimovich stood for a curly-haired, opinionated journalist who once famously pissed off Rani Rahav, PR man for billionaire bank owner Shari Arison, so much that he called her a "bad, bad, bad woman." A few years earlier, she was bad-mouthed by the commander of the Golani Brigade for calling for the withdrawal of the Israeli army from South Lebanon.

She was celebrated as a firecracker: tough, hard-nosed and persistent. Her reputation as a trouble-maker started early: at age 15 she was expelled from high school for hanging up signs complaining about the principal.

Yacimovich began her journalistic career while studying behavioral sciences at Ben-Gurion University: while becoming involved in civil rights causes, she began reporting for the now defunct daily newspaper Al HaMishmar, which was affiliated with the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. In the early 1990s she moved to radio, eventually becoming the host of Israel Radio’s flagship program, Hakol Diburim, one of the most popular political radio shows in Israel.

In 2000 she moved to television. Yacimovich hosted the Israeli version of "Meet the Press" and other shows, and had a regular spot on the high-rating Friday night news show on Channel 2. There she expressed hard-line social democratic values, attacked crony capitalism and corrupt public officials, criticized privatization and did not cavil at going after some of the biggest, wealthiest business people in the country. En route her curls straightened and her wardrobe changed.

Yacimovich became a symbol of Tel Aviv and of the secular, liberal people in Israel's most vibrant, but often loathed, city. She had bohemian, publicized relationships and refused to get married through the rabbinate, though she did marry by civil contract for a period of time. She gave birth to two children and wrote two novels, which were heavy on the content and were widely believed to be based on her affairs, including one with then-married TV host Guy Meroz.

And you’d better believe she didn’t vote Labor: She famously proclaimed to have voted for Hadash, an Arab-Jewish radical-left party affiliated with the Israeli Communist party.

In 2005 she announced her entry into politics, teaming up with then-Labor leader Amir Peretz before the elections for the 17th Knesset. Two weeks before, she had interviewed Peretz on television: many thought the conversation adulatory. Yacimovich shrugged that she could hardly be described as objective and could no longer pretend to be.

Less than a month later, the two became political partners.

Thus, in March 2006, she became a Knesset member and quickly made a name for herself as one of the most active MKs in terms of social, economic and civil rights legislation.

Yacimovich turns bashful

But somewhere along the line, politics changed Yacimovich. Gone were the days of biting commentary and unapologetic leftism. She turned timid. In 2008, during municipal elections in Tel Aviv, she stood by Labor-affiliated incumbent mayor Ron Huldai, denouncing his opponent, Hadash MK Dov Khenin as an "anti-Zionist who promotes conscientious objection to military service and does not stand when the national anthem is sung.” Once upon a time, Khenin could probably have counted on her support.

These days, she doesn’t like taking questions about her voting record in 1996. "The truth is I don't remember,” she said in an interview with Haaretz in August 2011. "I remember I really loved MK Tamar Gozansky. Anyway, if we challenge Zionism, then there is no meaning to our existence here.”

But her political makeover was far from done. In the same interview, she expressed very different opinions to the ones she once held, suddenly showing ambivalence towards Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, refusing to conform to partisan convention that the settlements are criminal. She went so far as to support the accreditation of the university in Ariel, claiming that if Israeli governments treated Ariel as a part of Israel in the past it would be frivolous to oppose it now. Those views are certainly rare for a left-wing politician, especially one as opinionated as Yacimovich. So what happened?

What happened to Yacimovich?

A week before the interview, at the height of the biggest social protest movement Israel has ever seen and thanks to the hard work of hundreds (maybe thousands) of volunteers, she won the leadership of the Labor party. She defeated her former mentor, Amir Peretz, ironically enough.

That's what happened.

If she played her cards right, she felt, she could be prime minister. And leftist, frizzy-haired journalists with an attitude and a penchant for anti-Zionist parties do not get the prestigious initials P and M before their names.

Soon enough, Yacimovich found herself running against the strongest prime minister in Israel’s history, especially after a merger with Yisrael Beiteinu strengthened him even further.

You can’t accuse her of not pulling out the big guns though; she enlisted "star" candidates to join Labor and run in the party primaries. Her "acquisitions" include social-justice protest leaders Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir, quixotic journalist Miki Rosenthal and former general Omer Bar-Lev.

What's more, she took a good, hard look at the people who led Ehud Barak to victory in 1999, and decided to hire them all. Well, not all of them: Eldad Yaniv, one of the key members of Barak's 1999 election team, was running under his own new party this time.

She also hired Stanley Greenberg, a leading political pollster and political strategist for the U.S. Democratic Party, who has rarely lost an election. Greenberg is the one that took a lisping, uncharismatic, short, pudgy Ehud Barak and helped him triumph over the most charismatic politician in Israeli politics: Netanyahu. If anyone knew how to beat Netanyahu, it was Greenberg.

Yacimovich hoped she'd find out what it's like to party like it's 1999. But she didn't. She spectacularly failed to rally Netanyahu's detractors behind her leadership - alientating vast groups in the center-left including frontbenchers in her own party, namely Peretz who joined hands with Tzipi Livni. A more fateful failure was her apparent inability to capitalize on the popular sentiment of thousands of middle-class voters who took to the streets in 2011 - and ended up voting for Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party.

Or maybe, the Israeli voters just couldn't forgive Yacimovich for once voting Hadash.

Yanai Yehiel