Zionist Union’s Demise: Inside or Outside the Government the Party Is Doomed

Five comments on the unity talks between Herzog and Netanyahu, and why the prime minister will have the last laugh.

Tomer Appelbaum

1. Whether the Labor Party comes crawling to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition — or whether the negotiations hit a brick wall, the party’s fate seems sealed. Entering the government will negate Isaac Herzog’s major achievement before the last Knesset election: Establishing the Zionist Union slate with Tzipi Livni and winning 24 Knesset seats. Now, the party may split — whether de facto or de jure.

What will remain of the Zionist Union in the next election? On one hand, if after this saga the party remains outside the government, no one will take the Zionist Union and its leader seriously. Labor will look like the “wet schnauzer left out in the rain,” to reiterate the metaphor Yair Lapid used to insult Yesh Atid voters who were disappointed from his failed term as finance minister in the previous Netanyahu government.

On the other hand, entering the current Netanyahu government, with these coalition partners and policies, would be interpreted as a betrayal of the party’s principles, a gesture of surrender indicating a lust for power and respect.

It is not surprising that Lapid is praying for Herzog: He knows that if Labor enters the coalition it will make Lapid finally and officially the only alternative from the center-left camp for prime minister. So what is on the agenda is not just the question of joining the government, but of Herzog’s leadership — and alas, not much is left of that.

2. We have had a number of unity governments in the past based on parity in the 1980s or, after that, on broader governments. Labor was always the one that raced to join the Likud government because “in the end there is the country to think about.” Every time it was possible to find some sort of justification to join: Helping Ariel Sharon carry out the disengagement from Gaza in 2005; or supporting Netanyahu during his second term in 2009 when he gave his “two states for two peoples” speech at Bar-Ilan University and froze construction in the settlements for nine months. But a different unity government than we have ever had — maybe it reminds us a bit of the hurried entry of Kadima, led by Shaul Mofaz, to the Netanyahu government in May 2012, a middle-of-the-night move that began as a farce and ended as a political tragedy. The 2016 model of Netanyahu is light-years from the Bibi of his previous two terms. Now he is the deep, hard, uncompromising right. There are no doubts about his policies, his path, who and what he is; and he will not change direction. The farce in this case will come entirely at Labor’s expense.

3. As of Tuesday, Herzog still had not said yes to Netanyahu’s offer. As of Tuesday, Netanyahu was not willing to grant him any significant diplomatic quid pro quo, or to change the government’s principles or get rid of Habayit Hayehudi. All that was offered was a package of portfolios, a fistful of ministries. It is insulting, and apparently even Herzog has a limit to how much he is willing to be insulted. Livni and Shelly Yacimovich made it clear to Herzog that he cannot count on them. For now Herzog is the chairman of a party, without a party.

4. Netanyahu truly wants to bring Labor into the coalition now. He doesn’t expect 24 MKs to join; he would be satisfied with 14 or 15, even a few less. What’s the problem? His coalition would have 75 seats and he would not be forced to court every Oren Hazan who threatens to vote against the two-year budget. With Labor inside and Herzog as an active and effective foreign minister, he would be immune from both open and hidden extortion from all the bastards who now think they are kings in a 61-member coalition. At the same time, he would be better prepared to deal with the expected intensification of international pressure on Israel over the next year. But he is unwilling to change his policies or strategy or make any move that would endanger his prime directive: Carefully preserving his right-wing base.

5. Those close to Herzog said Tuesday: “If we are given the chance to place a hand on the steering wheel, we will join the government. If not, then we won’t.” So maybe they will be given a toy steering wheel. At most, they will be allowed to sit in the back seat and give some advice — which won’t be listened to. Every diplomatic act by Herzog, every attempt of his to change things — and he has good intentions — will be rejected out of hand. He will run all over the globe, meet foreign ministers, give speeches on the importance of peace; and if we continue with the metaphors from the world of transportation it will be a matter of “giving full gas while in neutral.” And Netanyahu will have the last laugh.