Well, it’s been over a year now since the election, and the Zionist Union signs along the roadways have mostly peeled off, but its campaign slogan – “It’s Us – Or Him” – is still clearly legible. A slogan that captured the heart of the choice facing Israeli voters: More years of Benjamin Netanyahu in power, or an alternative. The slogan expressed the deep dissatisfaction of much of the public with Netanyahu, and the desire for a change of direction and leadership. And it made room under one roof for Labor Party scion Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, one-time princess of the ideological right.
Hundreds of thousands of voters identified with this message and gave Zionist Union 24 Knesset seats. This achievement, the likes of which had not been seen for many years, united voters from a relatively broad political spectrum who put aside their smaller differences for the sake of the larger goal: replacing Netanyahu.
What’s left of that campaign slogan? A big part of the public, myself among them, believes that our job is to be an alternative to the ruling party and not go crawling into the warm bosom of a failed government. Perhaps there is a majority within the Zionist Union faction that favors entering the coalition, no matter the ideological and public price; perhaps in a party convention where approval of important decisions is supposed to be obtained, a majority would be found for joining Netanyahu. Hunger for power is a known chronic illness of Labor. Time after time, desperate to find a way out of the political wilderness, it has been tempted into unity governments that only end up crippling the party’s image and completely undermining the public’s trust in it.
But those who placed their faith in Zionist Union did so in order to change the government, not to play second fiddle or be a fifth wheel. And all these people now find themselves bewildered at the reports about talks of forming a unity government, and can’t see what the point of it would be. A unity government could be justified if there were a dramatic change in our situation – like an economic or security crisis. Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog asserts that there is a rare diplomatic window of opportunity now, but there is zero hard evidence of this.
A unity government could be justified if the leader had a change of attitude. But there is no sign whatsoever that the Netanyahu of today is any different from the Netanyahu we’ve known for years: intransigent on the diplomatic front and unwilling to advance the two-state solution; an economic neoliberal who has done virtually nothing to reduce the cost of housing and cost of living; a leader who time and again chooses polarization and inflammatory rhetoric over conciliation and a broad embrace. So if the situation hasn’t changed and the leader hasn’t changed, why abandon the central idea of Zionist Union?
Let’s admit the truth: The incentive for joining government is apparently a generous dowry of jobs that Netanyahu is allegedly offering, in return for forgoing the campaign promise to be an alternative, and essentially forgoing once and for all the possibility of ever presenting an alternative to the right-wing government. The voter migration back to Yesh Atid, as indicated in the polls, is proof that the last weeks have been ruinous for Zionist Union and that the public no longer sees the party as a true alternative.
“Oh, those poor fans,” Arik Einstein once sang about the Hapoel Tel Aviv faithful – fans of the legendary team connected to the legendary Labor movement – who had to cope with a steady diet of losses and failure. Those poor Zionist Union fans, too, who can hardly take in what is happening. Just what their party leaders swore up and down would never happen again. Not on their watch. Seeing is disbelieving.
The writer is mayor of Tel Aviv.
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