Labor Shakes Up Israeli Politics

Prime Minister Netanyahu's dream is coming true: Kadima has been battered in the polls. But Likud isn't the party that's gaining those extra seats.

The poll published in Haaretz on Monday was both a dream and a nightmare scenario for Benjamin Netanyahu. The abhorred Kadima, which arose on Likud's ruins, had lost a third of its Knesset seats to Labor, turning it into a middling party with 18 seats. O, sweet revenge! He'd dreamed of this moment for years.

Yet Likud had not grown - it had only 26 seats. The right-wing bloc was still far ahead of the center-left bloc, but the prime minister's share had shrunk. If these were actual election results, Netanyahu would still be prime minister, but at an astronomical coalition price and with less freedom to maneuver. Once more, he would be utterly dependent on narrow parties such as Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Shelly Yachimovich
Amos Biderman

All Netanyahu's political conversations with confidants in recent months began with the questions, "What will happen with Shelly [Yachimovich]?" and "What will Yvet [Avigdor Lieberman] do?" It's no secret that Netanyahu was hoping Yachimovich would become Labor Party leader. Maybe those of his advisers who were photographed this week in a particularly embarrassing situation - praying at the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in New York - had been sent by the prime minister to thank the rebbe for letting his dream come true.

Netanyahu considers Yachimovich an effective way to crush Kadima, particularly its leader MK Tzipi Livni. Woman vs. woman. Centrist vs. centrist. As far as he is concerned, the television personality and columnist Yair Lapid, the eternal prime-time hesitater, is also welcome to join the celebration and take another two or three seats away from Kadima. The more the merrier, Netanyahu says. When he sits down with his family for the Rosh Hashanah repast and says, "May a new year and its blessings begin," they will count Yachimovich as one of those blessings. Last year there were too many curses.

The entire right-wing camp mobilized in support of Yachimovich, mostly through prayers and nice words, and less in terms of deeds. The Haredi MKs crossed their fingers for her, far from touching distance. They see her as one of them. A perfect saint. In her six years in the Knesset, she has never been heard saying a bad word about the ultra-Orthodox. When Shas leader and Interior Minister Eli Yishai was blasted by the media for his part in the Mount Carmel fire fiasco - Yachimovich was the most prominent MK on the left to defend him. It will be interesting to see how she responds to the report by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss about the Carmel fire, which will not be kind to Yishai. After all, she was the most enthusiastic defender of Judge Lindenstrauss when he plunged eagerly into the Ehud Olmert affair, while sharing every detail of the investigation with the media. This time, she will have to choose.

Kadima's crash

The most prominent number in the Haaretz-Dialog poll this week concerns Labor's great leap forward: For the first time, it passed Kadima and once more became the country's second-largest party (22 seats ). Anyone who attributed Labor's rise exclusively to the media buzz in the wake of the primaries was too simplistic. Since Ehud Barak and his pals abandoned the mother ship in favor of a wobbly raft called Atzmaut, Labor has been growing, slowly but surely: from 6-7 seats under Barak to 9-10 after he left, 12-13 at the height of the social protests in July and August, and now 22. We are witnessing a phenomenon. Something's happening here.

Kadima is undergoing the opposite process: Within two months, it has lost 10 seats in the polls. If this were the stock exchange, the headlines would scream "Crash!" Trading would be suspended and brokers would scatter.

When sharks smell blood, they lose their manners. When politicians discern weakness, they pounce. On Monday, in the wake of the Haaretz poll, two senior Kadima MKs, Avi Dichter and Meir Sheetrit, called for holding the party's primaries sooner. The subtext of such a suggestion is: Let's dump the leader.

Tzipi Livni had a large, undeniable advantage: the Knesset seats she brought the party. It was solely thanks to her that Kadima won more seats than any other party in the last elections. Without the seats, Livni is no longer an asset. You don't need to expend very much efforts these days to get Kadima MKs, including some of her so-called supporters, to write off her performance as party leader - or even her very existence.

Kadima under Livni was never considered a very impressive opposition party. But the social protests this summer shocked the party's supporters, activists, mayors and MKs. "How can it be that when the streets are brimming with a protest that 87 percent of the population supports, Kadima is not only unable to gain even one seat from this tsunami, but is losing four to five a month in the polls, while the politically moribund Labor Party, which has been eulogized endlessly, is taking off?" they asked.

Sooner or later, Livni will have to answer that question. She has no one to share the blame with. According to Kadima's constitution (which is comparable only to that of Yisrael Beiteinu or Labor under Barak ), Livni is the sun, the moon and the stars in the party. She holds all the power, but also bears all the responsibility.

After the fall holidays, during the Knesset's winter session, Kadima will be working on mainly moving up its party primaries. They will almost certainly be held at the beginning of 2012, or even earlier, if Knesset elections are called earlier.

"Tzipi has to get a new mandate," a Kadima MK who is one of her most loyal supporters said this week. "This time, she will find that most of her former supporters are sitting on the fence or backing Shaul Mofaz. And even those who back her will no longer be willing to commit suicide for her. She doesn't have that effect on us anymore."

The prevailing opinion is that a contest between Mofaz and Livni could go either way. Mofaz recently changed his tactics: He has stopped criticizing Livni. Now he is simply ignoring her. All his anger is aimed at Netanyahu.

Mofaz's message, whether overt or covert, will be: "Even if I win fewer seats than Livni, I am at least capable of shaving two or three seats off the other bloc. And even if we lose more seats to Labor under my leadership - don't worry, friends, because they will stay in our bloc." A poll by Maagar Mochot released on Channel 10 yesterday gave Kadima 17 seats under Livni, and 13 under Mofaz.

Learning from Peretz

Yachimovich promises she will not change: Even after being elected, she does not intend to become a distinguished stateswoman and feverishly draft peace plans. She will stick to her guns: social welfare, social democracy, anti-concentration, anti-tycoon, etc. She will talk about only those issues.

If she is asked about the Quartet, about the negotiating freeze, she will answer in general terms, in the spirit of the moderate left, and return immediately to the social-democratic issues. That has been her winning card so far, and it will be her only card. She remembers what happened when Amir Peretz turned away from the social agenda when he became Ehud Olmert's defense minister in 2006. That was the beginning of his end, and she has internalized the lesson. She has no intention of repeating that mistake.

In the opposition, she will support Livni and Kadima on all state policy issues. As far as she is concerned, Livni can worry about the Palestinian state day and night. But she intends to lead the opposition on "her" issues. In this regard, she does not differentiate between Likud and Kadima. Both parties will be the subjects of her barbs, particularly Kadima, because that is where her potential Knesset seats lie. What will happen within the opposition in the Knesset's winter session will be no less - and maybe more - interesting than the regular coalition-opposition fights.

It doesn't bother Yachimovich that left-wing writers are accusing her of not being left wing. Let them, she says. Looking back, she sees how Labor, whose only banner was the peace process, kept losing relevance until it almost disappeared.

Labor's agenda will be political-security in orientation, she is promising people these days, but her agenda will be social-economic. What is the point of obsessing over the peace plan if you become irrelevant and lose all influence, she rhetorically asks at parlor meetings. She promises them that Labor under her leadership will strive to be a genuine ruling alternative by espousing a social agenda. She will not take the party leftward; she will keep it in the center.

If the left-wingers who are not pleased by this want to move to a new political house, they are invited to seek out Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On. She will welcome them with open arms.