How the Labor-Livni Deal Could Backfire

Wearing identical black-and-white attire at the press conference where they announced their agreement, Herzog and Livni looked like John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in 'Pulp Fiction.' But it’s not clear who their target was: their adversaries or themselves.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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The Labor-Hatnuah hook-up is a good start for the center-left, but in agreeing to a rotation deal with Tzipi Livni, Isaac Herzog proved he doesn't have nerves of steel
The Labor-Hatnuah hook-up is a good start for the center-left, but in agreeing to a rotation deal with Tzipi Livni, Isaac Herzog proved he doesn't have nerves of steelCredit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The idea of rotating the prime minister’s job was born out of a paralysis in Israeli politics in the 1980s — the deadlock between Labor and Likud. The deal was mediated by the president at the time, Chaim Herzog. In recent weeks, the concept has been revived — the corridors of power are heaving with the many scenarios being entertained.

The prevailing assumption in the center-left bloc is that without an ingenious arrangement of this type, party chiefs in the strong but diverse “Just not Bibi” camp wouldn’t be able to create a viable alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The rotation everyone envisioned was the one between the head of the bloc’s largest party, Labor’s Isaac Herzog, and the head of the center-right’s largest party, whether it ends up being Avigdor Lieberman or Moshe Kahlon. This scenario infused new hope into a camp that couldn’t bear to contemplate another term of Netanyahu and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.

Then, Wednesday evening, at the Council for a Beautiful Israel in Tel Aviv (a nerdier location couldn’t have been chosen), this hope apparently evaporated when Herzog and his new partner Tzipi Livni informed potential partners that they could forget such an option. The bear that was not yet caught, let alone spotted through the binoculars, was theirs and theirs alone.

To paraphrase a Hebrew nursery rhyme, Yitzhak and Tzipi stirred some porridge, spooning some out for him and some for her, but what was left for others? If they think Kahlon and Lieberman, who according to the polls will each win 12 or more seats, will bow their heads to such an arrangement, they’re either geniuses or fools.

Someone dressed Livni and Herzog in identical black-and-white attire to impart a serious air to their news conference. But it’s not clear who their target was: their adversaries or themselves.

Herzog and Livni at a joint press conference, December 10, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod

The math is simple: After the election, Herzog will need another 36 to 40 Knesset seats to form a government, assuming, of course, that the president gives him the chance to do this. A combination of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and the ultra-Orthodox parties would be tough to craft, as would any alliance between Meretz and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, even in its newer, more moderate incarnations. Without Kahlon and Lieberman, Herzog would have no ruling coalition. Those two guys would obviously make their own demands.

It’s true that Livni laid down an ultimatum, just as she did on the eve of the last election during talks with Lapid and Herzog’s predecessor at the helm of the Labor Party, Shelly Yacimovich. For Livni, being prime minister isn’t just an option, it’s a deep obsession — acute and almost terminal. She’s convinced that if she occupied that chair for a year or two, peace would soon follow and all Israel’s woes would be resolved.

All this is well known, but what made Herzog acquiesce remains a mystery, because the revolver that Livni held to his head was empty. Lapid, for whom such an arrangement would be a good fit, given his inexperience and immaturity, rejected her offer out of hand this time as well.

“Don’t get too upset, sourpuss analysts. The arrangement for a rotation between the two is good for now, for the start of the election campaign,” said a senior source in what will be the Herzog-Livni election slate.

“It has been well received by young voters and women; it conveys confidence and power. When the time comes and Herzog is asked to form a government, he and Livni will sit down and negotiate with the others all options on the table. If Kahlon demands a rotation, that too will be considered. We’re not nave, and that won’t be a hindrance to forming a government.”

Actually, the rotation was already in the air when Herzog declared last week that in the interests of changing the government, people would have to put their egos aside. Last Wednesday he said it was when he landed in New York, en route to the Saban Conference in Washington, that he realized the power of the tie-up between him and Livni. His phone was flooded with compliments for a joint photo with Livni taken before they had left Israel.

The deal was almost sealed while they were both staying at the prestigious Willard Hotel in the American capital. It was cold outside but warm and fuzzy inside. Their chemistry was obvious. Mark Mellman, Lapid’s polling and strategic adviser, was present and impressed by the flourishing relationship. He presumably sent gloomy reports to his boss in Tel Aviv.

When Livni, Herzog and their entourage returned to Israel they opened a WhatsApp group called “Herz-L for Prime Minister” — they sealed the final details using this app. On Wednesday, an hour and a half before their news conference, Livni came to Herzog’s house. They hugged, made speeches, drank a toast and left for the Council for a Beautiful Israel in Hayarkon Park.

To Herzog’s credit, he isn’t denying that Livni steamrollered him, though he uses a more polite phrase: “This was the only way for her.” He’s proud that he got her to back down from her demand to save five spots on the joint ticket for her people. She’ll suffice with three out of the first 20. What a concession. What a sacrifice. She dumped Meir Sheerit, Elazar Stern and David Tsur, whom she’ll quickly forget.

“I knew I’d be severely criticized for this move. So there’ll be some criticism. You forget that a week ago no one gave Labor a chance to form the next government,” Herzog said.

“Now it’s clear that this is a viable possibility. Our tie-up, including the rotation deal, which is doing well in opinion polls, broke some taboos. It shattered a glass ceiling. I have no problem relinquishing the prime minister’s job for two years. I’m not like Yair, for whom it’s all me, me, me.”

I asked him: “Between you and me, was this concession painful?” “Of course it was,” he replied. “Of course it wasn’t easy, but I had no hesitations. I’m convinced that it’s the right decision.”

Maybe it was. We still have to wait for the surveys and campaigns and the electoral upsets that will transpire.

And finally, some food for thought: Imagine what would have happened if Herzog had called a press conference and announced: “I offered Livni the following: second spot on the slate, the foreign ministry, negotiating chief with the Palestinians, the prime minister’s stand-in enshrined by law and four slots on the ticket. The negotiations failed due to her stubborn and uncompromising insistence that we rotate. I hope she reconsiders before the deadline for submitting electoral lists, so that together we can create a Zionist camp that will topple Netanyahu and form a new government.”

Such a speech would have proved that Herzog has nerves of steel and is capable of shrewd decisions. The whole “white” camp, as it is rightly or wrongly labeled, would have risen against Livni and compelled her to capitulate. That would have been a really impressive achievement for Herzog.

The hope and the flop

Livni and Lapid held two meetings. The first was at the Knesset and the second was at his house in Ramat Aviv. He invited her and she came, even though it was clear it was Herzog with whom she’d be walking down the aisle.

Since a rotation deal was off the table, Lapid had no choice but to resort to his doomsday weapon — calling for a joint slate of Yesh Atid, Livni’s Hatnuah and the party Kahlon is expected to form. “Together we’ll get 30 seats and take over the government,” he told the object of his wooing. Livni remained cool.

Perhaps, in addition to the insurmountable obstacle of the rotation, Livni knew that Kahlon had no intention of joining with Yesh Atid. There are less painful ways for Kahlon to commit political suicide. With all due sympathy to Lapid, he’s a lunch-box letdown, whereas Kahlon is a man on the rise.

Lapid symbolizes everything that Kahlon is against and everything that Kahlon is not: unprofessionalism and a lack of understanding, seriousness, thoroughness, determination and accountability.

There’s also plenty of arrogance, complacency and the unbridled ambition to become prime minister, now.

Only two days after the January 2013 election, Lapid told the nation in a pitiful interview with Channel 10 that the next time the country was dragged into an election he would emerge as prime minister. The more experienced Kahlon would never make such a statement.

What motivated Lapid to make empty declarations not only to Livni but to journalists, that it was only a matter of time before he took Kahlon under his wing? It’s reasonable to assume that there will be some sort of agreement between them, before or after the election.

Lieberman told people who paid condolence visits after his mother’s death that he, Lapid and Kahlon would determine the next prime minister. That may be so, but it seems Lapid will be the weak link in this group.

He’ll follow the other two around and might learn a thing or two.

Of all the parties in this election, Lapid’s faces the gravest danger of becoming irrelevant. The young Yesh Atid party has no base; most of its supporters, the polls show, are floating voters.

The public’s enthusiasm for Lapid has long since waned, with polls showing his party garnering 10 to 11 seats, which could easily drop to single digits. Everyone realizes that Herzog is the camp’s candidate for forming the next government.

Okay, he and Livni. (Or as she said on Army Radio, “my partner, the prime ministerial candidate, together with me.”) ‘Dealing Danny’ The Likud Central Committee is a hostile environment for Netanyahu. At its meeting in Ariel on Tuesday, boos, anger and rancor overshadowed any support for the leader. If committee chairman Danny Danon (now called “Dealing Danny” after going along with Netanyahu in all their recent steps), who is himself running for party chairman, had put to a vote Netanyahu’s proposal to move up the primary by one week to December 31, it would have failed badly in Ariel. Most of the delegates present were from the extreme right, followers of Moshe Feiglin and other groups. They sure know how to make noise.

But the next day, ballots opened throughout the country and by evening it was clear that Netanyahu’s proposal, clearly made to make it harder for former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar to run against him, had passed by a large majority.

The central committee sent a clear signal that Likud was following its tradition of not deposing a sitting prime minister, even when he’s not doing so well.

If the proposal had failed, Netanyahu wouldn’t have been deposed, but the noconfidence message would have been loud and clear.

Sa’ar’s dilemma The vote reduced the chances that Sa’ar will announce his candidacy. Even with a different result, his dilemma would have remained.

If the central committee had voted against Netanyahu, chaos would have ensued, with no clear rules for party elections. Danon would have convened the committee again and taken over the nomination of prospective MKs.

In Israel’s political culture it’s accepted that nothing is more anti-democratic than a vote in the Likud Central Committee. If Netanyahu had lost, the party would have been stung by the slap of its leader, who happens to be prime minister. Likud would have plunged in the opinion polls while on the other side, Labor was linking up with a popular politician touting unity.

Sa’ar could have jumped at the opportunity, picking a ripe fruit just waiting to be plucked. But what a fruit.

Even if he beat Netanyahu, he would be the head of a shattered party, far from looking like an electionwinner.

Failure at the ballot box would have been partly attributed to him. He would have been accused of dipping his hands in blood.

Clearly the prevailing Likud sentiment is not pro- Netanyahu. Even in his party, people have tired of him.

His stock is falling among the general public, too. At the height of Operation Protective Edge, the prime minister’s approval rating stood at 77 percent, though it plunged to 50 percent by the end. A Haaretz survey has now showed this number at 38 percent.

Anything he says sounds untrustworthy. He was criticized for his tardiness in visiting the Arava oil spill this week. His decision to reduce VAT on basic food items was perceived as a cheap electoral stunt.

In the polls, Likud is losing 1 to 1.5 seats a week.

Recent surveys show that if the election were held now Likud would win 20 or 21 seats, five or six fewer than in a survey two months ago. It’s hard to conceive of a magic wand that would change this trend, though it could materialize.

When the going gets tough, it’s time to pounce on the media. Indeed, such sounds, so familiar from the 1999 election campaign, are emerging from key Netanyahu allies – Interior Minister Gilad Erdan and deputy ministers Tzachi Hanegbi and Ofir Akunis. In interviews, they have voiced the suspicion that the media are trying to topple Netanyahu.

Yes, once again, the media is to blame.

We can assume they were reciting bullet points issued by the Prime Minister’s Bureau.

It’s unclear what they want. Two weeks ago Netanyahu claimed that Livni and Lapid were organizing a putsch against him. Now it’s the media. But wait a minute – wasn’t it Netanyahu who rushed to announce an election even though he had no reason to? He’s plotting a putsch against himself, so he shouldn’t complain.

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