It's clear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants center-left Zionist Union to join his next government. But why Zionist Union would want to do that is murky at best: Zionist Union - and Israel - have much to lose from such a partnership.
First, it would be bad for the center-left party. It would demoralize many of that party’s 786,000 voters who rejected a right-wing worldview in the March 17 election. These voters know Zionist Union cannot improve a Netanyahu government. No matter who joins him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud associates - to say nothing of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and his colleagues - will continue to promote the construction of illegal settlements at the expense of dealing with housing, employment and healthcare problems inside the Green Line, while taking a head-in-the-sand approach to the foreign policy implications of these moves.
Moreover, Zionist Union cannot improve Israel's relations with the United States by joining Netanyahu's coalition. There is nothing Zionist Union can do from within the coalition to change its foreign policy, because its right-wing disciples endorse it fervently, blindly and implacably. Therefore relations with Washington will remain awful even if someone polite and polished from the Zionist Union represents Israel there.
More specifically, Zionist Union cannot change the dynamic Israel faces in Washington. Republicans love us because they hate U.S. President Barack Obama. And Obama loves Israel, but not Netanyahu and his policies. Zionist Union cannot change this equation. Netanyahu will continue to preach about Iran and ignore the elephant in the room – Israel's occupation of what right-wingers call Judea and Samaria.
Obama, for his part, will continue being at odds with Netanyahu over this. While Obama politely says that Netanyahu is entitled to express concern over Israel’s security, he and many other Americans think Netanyahu is eager to drag the United States into attacking Iran, despite the improbability of Iran ever using a nuclear weapon against Israel. Atomic bombs were used only once since they were invented, and that was against a country, Japan, that did not possess them.
Ultimately, Israel’s relations with Washington are strained not just because of how Jerusalem’s ambassador works with Republicans to make a Democratic president look weak on Iran but because Netanyahu – whose wife says he “reads heaps of books, understands economics, understands security, [and] has academic degrees” – ignores Cold War lessons about nuclear standoffs, summed up in the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). For this reason, too, U.S.-Israel relations cannot be improved by Zionist Union leaders so long as Netanyahu is Israel’s prime minister.
Furthermore, if Zionist Union joins Netanyahu, this would cripple Israeli democracy. Instead of exposing right-wing folly from outside the coalition, the appearance of center-left leaders in political selfies with right-wing extremists would serve as a fig leaf for the right. Such a coalition would leave Israelis without an attractive alternative to Netanyahu and his gang. It would keep Zionist Union from playing its proper opposition role in a democratic society - offering a hopeful vision of change. In Israel's case, the opposition must speak out whenever Netanyahu's crowd proposes something outrageous like saddling Israel’s modern, scientific, and secular society with an archaic, intolerant and clerical state.
But it is not feasible for a coalition member to voice such criticism. Therefore, collaborating with right-wing zealots in Netanyahu's next government would make Zionist Union leaders look feeble for voluntarily playing a game whose cards are stacked against them. Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni would look weak for supporting policies they campaigned against, and Netanyahu would look strong for tempting them with cabinet chairs and thereby tucking them into his pocket. It follows that when the next election comes around, the center and left would continue to play musical chairs while failing to offer a powerful alternative to the right-wing disasters.
The bottom line is that Likud wants Zionist Union. But does Zionist Union want to destroy itself and lose the next election? If not, the smart thing for it to do now is go boldly into the opposition. Herzog, Livni and their colleagues must take a break while Netanyahu dithers and blathers. They must use the time to organize their party and attack right wing projects creatively and relentlessly until Netanyahu's right-wing coalition collapses. And collapse it will.
David Ricci is a Professor of Political Science and American Studies at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
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