With Herzog in Legal Limbo, Peretz and Yacimovich Set Sights on Top Labor Seat

While awaiting a decision by the attorney general as to whether the current police examination against him will morph into a full-fledged investigation, Labor leader Isaac Herzog is being buffeted by slings and arrows from two main directions.

An illustration showing Yacimovich handing a piece of cake to a sweaty Herzog as Peretz raises a glass in the background.
Amos Biderman

The conclusion to be drawn from the remarks made by MK Amir Peretz on Tuesday is that the die is cast: He has made up his mind to run – for the fourth time in the past 11 years – for the Labor Party leadership. He’s addicted. He’ll run even if Labor has no chance of returning to power and even possibly no chance of emerging as the biggest party on the center-left in the next election. He will climb the mountain because it’s there.

In fact, the speech he delivered was better suited to someone who’s already been elected party leader – dripping with pathos, highfalutin words, a call to arms: “We must go from house to house, community to community, in the toughest, trickiest places, reopen the party’s doors for them and offer them true partnership From here we are embarking on a journey to the heart of the public to convey our vision.”

Sitting, shrunken, in the front row of the event was MK Isaac Herzog. The last time we looked, he was the party leader. “I believe in your innocence,” Peretz declared condescendingly. “So, I will give you the space needed to prove your justness.” Generously, from his place upon high, Peretz is doling out “space” to those in need of his favors.

One wonders what Herzog finds preferable: the poison-tipped darts that weaken but don’t kill that are being fired at him on a daily basis by another claimant to the crown, MK Shelly Yacimovich – or Peretz’s patronizing attempt to show leadership. Two days earlier, Herzog had been compelled to be Yacimovich’s guest when she celebrated the 10th anniversary of her entry into politics. Since when do MKs, however prominent, throw themselves birthday parties that are not biological but career-related?

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit hasn’t yet decided whether to classify the current police examination of Herzog as a full-fledged investigation. That could happen any day. Even if Herzog is interrogated by a criminal investigation unit of the police, his account might be accepted by the interrogators. But Yacimovich was quick to announce that if a criminal investigation is launched, she and “other senior party figures” will meet to decide what to do about the teddy bear in the room.

Herzog said that it sounds to him like a kangaroo court. “Even if my body is lying on the floor, I’ve proved that I am capable of getting up,” he said. He has indeed emerged from complex situations, including a similar brush with suspicions of criminality, but not of this intensity.

In contrast to Peretz, who is guided by the saying, “If they give you, take; if they hit you, run” – the view in the party is that Yacimovich is more rational than he about another leadership run. She knows she would have a hard time getting the 15 Knesset seats the party won under her leadership in November 2013, on the strength of the social-protest movement. Even then, she was already considered relatively old-fashioned compared to the then-new star in the political skies, Yair Lapid.

If Herzog is forced to step aside, Peretz will fall on the booty with whoops of joy. Thirteen seats, 12, 10, whatever – he will be pleased. In the past, he headed a party with three seats, and he felt no loss of dignity.

Yacimovich is more skeptical. She sees in her mind’s eye the bitter precedent of Shaul Mofaz. In 2008, Mofaz ran against Tzipi Livni for the leadership of Kadima, then the ruling party. He believed victory was snatched away from him by a dubious percentage point, and for four years he craved revenge. The two ran again in 2012, and he won. But the inheritance Mofaz acquired was fatal: He was fated to sign the death certificate of the country’s biggest party, which in 2013 shrank to two seats and then disappeared from the political map altogether.

Therefore, in the view of some, Yacimovich is not ruling out the possibility of running for leadership of the Histadrut labor federation in another year, as a transitional step. At times a politician needs to act against his or her basic instincts. The supreme goal is to reach the top of the pyramid, in this case the leadership of the Labor Party. Theoretically, that objective is within her reach. She’s considered the strongest and best organized of those whose names have been mentioned as candidates in the post-Herzog era: Peretz, MKs Eitan Cabel, Erel Margalit and Omer Bar-Lev, and possibly also Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai. But for now, Yacimovich is treading warily: Although Herzog is enfeebled, she is not hurrying to say she’ll run, only that the odds that she will are high.

With respect to the discussions Herzog held to examine the possibility of joining Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, she left him high and dry. She knew they were taking place but didn’t bother to keep track of the details. This week she noted that it was clear to her that Herzog wanted in more than she did. The subtext: I want in, too, but not at the price he’s willing to pay.

By the way, in these pages last week I reported on the role played by Yossi Kucik, director general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Ehud Barak, on Herzog’s behalf, to prepare the ground for establishment of a broad coalition. It emerged this week that Kucik was not the only person – and not the main one – used by Herzog in this capacity. He had another mediator who exchanged messages and position papers with Prime Minister Netanyahu. In fact, Herzog himself revealed this to a few senior figures in his party, but without saying who the mystery person was (or if he did, they’re not telling at this stage).

When the bough breaks

Three months ago, this column reported on an embryonic initiative by the chairman of the Knesset’s House Committee, MK David Bitan (Likud), to lower the threshold for entering the Knesset from 3.25 percent to 2 percent of the popular vote. According to that proposal, in the next election, a party that won at least two seats – as opposed to a minimum of four, as the present law stipulates – would enter the Knesset. The threshold was raised to 3.25 percent in March 2014 as part of the “governance legislation” sponsored by Avigdor Lieberman.

Lieberman’s “good” intention led him and Netanyahu (who wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea in the first place) to a place where good intentions usually end up: parliamentary hell. Netanyahu’s loyal ally Eli Yishai, who formed a semi-Kahanist slate with Baruch Marzel, failed to enter the Knesset, costing the right wing two precious seats. On top of which, the Arab parties ran as one slate and increased their parliamentary strength. Some governance.

In January, Bitan obtained the agreement of most of the coalition leaders, including Netanyahu, to reduce the threshold again; Zionist Union and Meretz were also in favor. The obstacle was Shas leader Arye Dery. He made it clear that he would not support legislation that was aimed at facilitating Yishai’s way back into the next Knesset.

Bitan tried to work out a deal between Dery and Yishai, despite their bitter rivalry: Yishai, who is deep in debt from last year’s failed campaign, would commit to not running in the next election – and in return, his party would reunite with Shas, which would pay his debts to the banks, and Yishai himself would be compensated with various posts and honors.

Yishai rejected the idea. That was before the eruption of Dery Affair No. 2. Yishai certainly will not go for it now, with the branch that Dery is sitting on threatening to snap off at any moment. For now, Bitan has suspended his initiative, pending developments. He will act when the time is ripe.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
Emil Salman

Caveat emperor

In a recording broadcast on Channel 2 News, Jerusalem’s Nir Barkat is heard boasting about his supposed clout in Likud to a local party activist. Since he began recruiting members to Likud, the multimillionaire (according to Forbes magazine), high-tech mayor related, ministers and MKs who formerly ignored him have begun making pilgrimages to him. “Yisrael Katz, Haim Katz, Gilad Erdan are all suddenly sweet-talking me. They’re starting to feel that something is happening It’s said that a serious player in Likud is someone with 1,500 or 2,000 members who support him? We’re already there. Now we’re focusing on organized groups.”

When Haim Katz says that, it sounds bad, not quite kosher. When Nir Barkat says it, it also sounds bad. Truly strong players don’t recruit like crazy. They know that their skills and record will bring the voters out.

A little modesty wouldn’t hurt Barkat, either. “The Knesset doesn’t interest me,” he told his audience. Only being a “senior minister.” Foreign affairs, defense, finance. The Education Ministry even seems to him of less value than being mayor of Jerusalem. But pretensions and megalomania are not and never were qualities with which to launch a political career in the national arena.

Barkat didn’t show optimal judgment in his effort to extort extra funding for his city last year against Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Zeev Elkin. After flexing his muscles at them, Barkat was forced to back down and apologize. That in itself should have taught him a lesson. He had phenomenal success and made a fortune in his private career, but that doesn’t automatically translate into political capital. Sometimes it can even be harmful.

Barkat would do well to learn from the path followed by his twin in the world of high-tech and amassing fortunes, MK Erel Margalit (Labor). Margalit, too, entered national politics convinced that he was God’s gift to humanity in general and the State of Israel in particular. He still believes he’s been anointed for kingship, or for the premiership, at least. But his road hasn’t been easy. Money is not the answer to everything. Politicians with chronic overdrafts are showing him how it’s done.