Even Isaac Herzog did not anticipate such a landslide victory. His keen political instincts enabled him to identify the strong resentment of Shelly Yacimovich within the Labor Party. He was able to detect the erosion of support for her as well as the bitter disappointment with her views, her conduct and her personality.
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He witnessed the desertion of active members and the final end of the social protest era that had swept Yacimovich to the party’s leadership 26 months ago. Herzog could feel that there was something in the air but it is doubtful whether even he believed that the voters were so fed up with their leader. Unfortunately, this atmosphere went undetected by the Israeli media, which had already lost interest in the ongoings of the Labor Party. In retrospect, we learned that the writing was on the wall – in big, block letters.
“It’s the timing, stupid.” Just as Herzog did not have a chance of winning in the party primaries in September 2011, after the social protest movement fizzled out, it became apparent in the early hours of Friday morning that Yacimovich did not have a chance against him. His victory was very convincing. He did not win by a few points - but rather scored a near knockout victory. However, the outcome of this election is not so much Herzog’s victory as Yacimovich’s defeat. She not only lost, she was deposed.
This was the victory of the Labor Party of yore - one is almost tempted to call it a victory of what was once the Labor Alignment, or even, the historic Mapai party. Many senior veterans of the Labor Party threw their support behind the Prince of North Tel Aviv, who is the son of the late Chaim Herzog, a Major General in the Israel Defense Forces and the country’s sixth president, and the grandson and namesake of the late Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, Israel’s first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi after it became an independent state. This marked a victory over the revolutionary young "New Labor" led by the socialist lady from south Tel Aviv.
Most of Yacimovich’s erstwhile stalwart supporters, dubbed “Shelly’s Tanzim” (an allusion to Fatah’s militia), voted with their feet and stayed home on Election Day. The few supporters she had left did not even provide her with a gracious loss. This vote was first and foremost a vote of no confidence in her leadership. However, while Herzog essentially won due to the fact that voters wanted "Anyone but Shelly," he also won because he is a good guy (in the best sense of the term), a seasoned cabinet minister, and an honest, well-liked man. Although his campaign was low-key and lackluster, he was the right person in the right place at the right time.
Yacimovich’s cardinal sin in her campaign in these primaries was a combination of hubris and excessive self-confidence. She notified the nation that she intended to make history by becoming the first Israel Labor Party leader to be reelected consecutively in the past few decades. Her campaign headquarters issued an official statement according to which she was leading Herzog by 22 percent. Up until last week, she and her followers were convinced that she would win; however, in what is called in sports “money time,” a certain tension could be felt in her campaign headquarters and her supporters began to talk about a closer race than initially anticipated.
In the end, everyone was wrong: It was far from a close race. What happened was a political upheaval in the Labor Party that marked the end of the era of a female leader of the opposition in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. For the past five years, that honorable title was borne in the previous Knesset by Justice Minister and Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni (when she was head of the Kadima Party, except for a brief episode when Shaul Mofaz was elected party leader) and in the previous Knesset and the present one by Yacimovich. As Labor’s new leader, Herzog will have to prove his mettle very quickly before the party’s notoriously disloyal and fickle voters change their mind and start looking around for a new replacement.
If the present trend in public opinion polls does not shift over the next 12 months and if Yesh Atid’s voters, dissatisfied with the performance of party leader and Minister of Finance Yair Lapid, do not view Labor as an alternative, Herzog just might find himself out a job before the next parliamentary elections. There must be a clause somewhere in Labor’s constitution that calls for the (metaphorical) beheading of the party leader once every two years.
Herzog would be wise to emulate the head of the Meretz Party, Zahava Gal-On. Despite her lack of charisma and her chirping, nerve-grating voice, she has become a trademark for her party, sticking to her ideological guns, remaining loyal to its norms and values and to her own code of personal integrity. Gal-On has produced unbelievable electoral results: In the last national elections, she doubled Meretz’s presence in the Knesset (from three to six seats) and, according to all the public opinion surveys, she will again double the number of Meretz representatives in the next Knesset to 11 or 12.
Herzog’s test as Labor Party leader will be whether he can lift the party’s parliamentary representation past the 20-seat benchmark and if he can sustain that figure over an extended period. Contrary to what many people think, he is no hurry to join Netanyahu’s government, especially not under the present circumstances, with all of the portfolios taken and with the peace process with the Palestinians all but deadlocked. If the situation changes and Habayit Hayehudi leaves the government, Labor under Herzog’s leadership will join it, which is precisely what the party under Yacimovich’s leadership would have done under similar circumstances.
It is safe to assume that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is delighted with the results of the Labor primaries. He will find it much easier to work with Herzog as opposition leader than he did with Yacimovich. Herzog served in Netanyahu’s previous government as a cabinet minister until the split in Labor, and they got along famously. Furthermore, immediately following the last national elections, Herzog supported Labor’s joining the coalition and was bitterly disappointed when Yacimovich spontaneously decided that the party would stay out of the coalition.
Next week, he will be officially declared opposition leader by the Knesset and he will then enjoy all the honors and symbols of power that go with that title: bodyguards, a spacious office, an expanded staff, a monthly meeting with the Prime Minister, participation in official functions, and meetings with visiting foreign ministers and political leaders. This past week he missed the opportunity of meeting French President François Hollande during the latter’s visit to Israel. In contrast, Yacimovich had the opportunity, just before handing over the reins of party leadership to Herzog, of delivering a speech in the Knesset in a festive parliamentary session held to mark Hollande’s visit.
How ironic that Yacimovich entered politics in 2005 with a blessing and a hug from former Labor Party leader Amir Peretz's blessing (who is today a member of the Hatnuah Party) at an official gathering at Labor Party headquarters, and she effectively ended her distinguished chapter in party history with kisses and a hug from Hollande last Monday in the Knesset plenum.