Opinion

Zionist Union's Story Is That It Has No Story

Isaac Herzog destroyed any remaining opposition DNA with his long, failed crawl to form a coalition government with Netanyahu in 2016

Isaac Herzog and Avi Gabbay at a Zionist Union meeting, March 2018.
Emile Salman

The fading away of Zionist Union is a story about the decline of a political alliance without a story. If you don’t have a story, in the end you have nothing to offer. People from the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah gathered together in Zionist Union; some of them are good and hardworking, but together they have nothing to offer.

Labor is a party that in a few years managed to rid itself of almost all its causes. Before the last election it even got rid of its name. The previous time it had done this, under Ehud Barak, at least it chose a promising name: One Israel. This time it chose a clumsy and apologetic name that corresponded directly with the traditional claims of the right.

The banner of the left was folded up and put away back when Shelly Yacimovich led Labor between 2011 and 2013. Four years later, after the defeat of Isaac Herzog and the election of Avi Gabbay as chairman, came the abandonment of three things: the evacuation of the settlements, the fight against religionization and the political partnership with the Israeli Arabs.

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Zionist Union’s support for the asylum seekers flip-flopped. Even the way it dealt with the personal and familial corruption of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looked as if it had been forced into the issue unwillingly. So why do we need this enity at all?

In Zionist Union there are always unsettled accounts and fantasies about future cooperation (with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman or the ultra-Orthodox). But underneath simmers a lack of confidence and terrible fear of what the “people” will say, in other words the right. In recent months, the tragedy has turned into a farce with the annexation plan of Zionist Union MK Eitan Cabel and the begging by MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin for an invitation to the opening ceremony for Donald Trump’s embassy in Jerusalem.

Gabbay doesn’t have a strong enough story to tell. When he ran for party leader, it seemed he’d have a better story and better chance than the other candidates – also because he’s a Mizrahi who came from the right. But it seems this was also an impediment. He was too attentive to the right-wing (“popular”) sentiments and drove away voters to another man without a story – Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid – but an Ashkenazi.

And Gabbay lacks charisma. It can be said in his defense that his inheritance was problematic. The 24 Knesset seats are an illusion; in practice, Herzog destroyed any remaining opposition DNA in the party with his long, failed crawl to form a coalition government with Netanyahu in 2016, his inability to stand up to him with pride. It’s no surprise that the first thing he said after he was chosen this week to lead the Jewish Agency was that he intends to work with Netanyahu in full cooperation.

Other explanations exist for the crisis in the party. While the average Israeli has become more religious and more right-wing, Zionist Union’s voters are aging and no new generation has arisen in their place. This is also the spirit of the times around the world. Almost every liberal and social democratic party has been beaten by the right, whether it’s the moderate and responsible right that here in Israel was actually considered “leftist” – as in Germany, Britain and France – or the populist and nationalist right as in the United States and Central and Eastern Europe.

But what stands out more than all these excuses is the lack of a story. Netanyahu has a story: personal, political, security and diplomatic. It’s not important whether it’s based on lies or opportunism. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and MK Bezalel Smotrich of Habayit Hayehudi all have a story too: nationalism, religiosity and the superiority of the chosen people. It doesn’t matter that it’s based on racism, cynicism and only eight Knesset seats. What’s the counter-story?

The perfect expression of all this is embodied in the previous chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Benny Gantz. Opinion polls forecast that a new party headed by him would win 13 seats in the Knesset, with Zionist Union taking 24 seats once again if it's under his leadership. Gantz is another person without a story, but he’s tall, good-looking and has a general’s stars on his shoulders.

If Gantz has positions, no one has ever heard them. He has already examined his options in Likud and Yesh Atid, and that he wants to “take part in doing.” Translated into Hebrew – or English for that matter – this means he wants to be defense minister in Netanyahu’s next cabinet. This is the only white hope in this camp. That’s the story.