What's Behind Netanyahu's Pursuit of the Labor Party? Fear, Loathing and a Restive Army

The Zionist Union's leader's motives are clear. But what changed in Netanyahu’s assessment that is now pushing him into Herzog’s arms? Or, in other words, what is he afraid of? Four options come to mind.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, May 4, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting, May 4, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

It is easy to understand why MK Isaac Herzog wants to join the Netanyahu government after a year of no achievements as head of the opposition, utterly crashing in the polls and facing the danger of being deposed from the party chairmanship.

But why is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so anxious to bring Zionist Union into the government, padding its entry with a wealth of ministerial portfolios and other posts, a little over a year after he rejected a possible deal with Herzog and preferred to build a right-wing coalition with Habayit Hayehudi chairman Education Minister Naftali Bennett?

Last year, it seemed that the prime minister was close to fulfilling his longtime dream of “replacing the elites” and getting the peace process and the Palestinian state off the agenda. Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, the daily Israel Hayom, expressed the desire for “the right-wing to control the state as well,” after almost 40 years in government, in which it had not managed to root out the “old elites” and perhaps had not really tried very hard.

This time it seemed that Netanyahu was intent on making a deep change in the country, giving a free hand to Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev to rewrite the country’s educational and cultural narrative. Just a little more effort, a little more purification of the academic world, of subsidized culture, high school curricula and appointments to the Supreme Court, and Menachem Begin’s historic revolution would be complete.

What changed in Netanyahu’s assessment that is now pushing him into Herzog’s arms? In other words, what is Netanyahu afraid of? After all, it’s clear that he has not suddenly fallen in love with the Labor Party’s platform or been won over by the Zionist Union’s campaign messages (“a third faction or him,”) which Netanyahu presented as a demon.

Netanyahu’s worldview has not changed – he opposes withdrawal from the West Bank and thinks the Palestinians and their supporters in the West are anti-Semites. Why should he bring in a party that even if only for appearance’s sake will have to make noises about “support for a renewal of the diplomatic process”?

Four possible explanations come to mind.

Obama’s revenge: United States President Barack Obama has yet to punish Netanyahu for his interference in American politics over the past seven-and-a-half years and his attempt to thwart the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers. During the transition period between the election of Obama’s successor in November and until January 20, 2017 when he leaves office, Obama will be free of any political pressures and can leave a legacy that would be uncomfortable for the prime minister – from a United Nations Security Council resolution on the Palestinian state and the settlements to harsh statements about the damage the current government is doing to Israel’s future.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations, New York, U.S., September 21, 2011. Credit: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

With the Zionist Union in the government, outside pressure will lessen, Herzog can go to peace conferences and the American military aid package agreement with the outgoing administration might even be sweetened.

The third intifada: The lone-terrorist attacks are embarrassing the right-wing government, which finds it hard to deal with them and is suffering from a lack of scapegoats, in the form of “leftist” ministers who will want to conduct a diplomatic process. That was the role played by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in Yitzhak Shamir’s national unity government. Herzog and fellow Zionist Union head MK Tzipi Livni will be cast naturally in that role.

The scene of a stabbing attack at the Ariel junction, March 17, 2016.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The revolution is in trouble: After a stormy beginning and a few achievements – the new civics textbook that placed a knitted skullcap over the education system, changes in criteria for receiving government assistance to cultural bodies, the exclusion of the book “Borderlife” from the high school reading list – Netanyahu’s revolution is having a tough time figuring out its next objectives. Most of the nationalist bills are stuck in the parliamentary pipeline. The entry of Zionist Union into the coalition will lead to the shelving of these bills. Is Netanyahu afraid of the revolution itself?

Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan poses with her Hebrew-language novel titled 'Gader Haya' (known in English as 'Borderlife') on December 31, 2015 at her home in Tel Aviv. Credit: AFP

The Israel Defense Forces is restless: The IDF is still the most popular body in Israel, and over the past few weeks its leaders have made clear that they do not intend to be the military arm of the Beitar soccer club’s extremist fans, La Familia, or of the right wing singer the Shadow. When Netanyahu changed sides in the affair of the soldier charged with manslaughter, Elor Azaria – from supporting the IDF to supporting the soldier’s family – the IDF chief of staff, and the defense minister did not blink and held their ground.

The admonitions delivered by the deputy IDF chief of staff on Holocaust Memorial Day were perceived as a challenge to the politicians. And no clarification or slap on the back will change that. Netanyahu quickly responded with calls for unity – and rightly so, because bringing the Zionist Union into the government will necessarily weaken the extreme right, which wants to re-educate the IDF General Staff.

Deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, May 5, 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

There is no real daylight between Netanyahu and Herzog on policy. The statements the two leaders have made in recent months, which in retrospect seem coordinated, created ground for an extensive area of agreement: They both agree that a Palestinian state is not feasible right now, that “Arab lovers” are off-putting to the Jewish public, that Bennett is irritating and should be ousted from the inner cabinet. The deal between them is not yet assured, but Netanyahu has very strong motives for making it – no less than does Herzog.

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