With Netanyahu Stalling, Yacimovich Soars

Netanyahu’s blunders, and squandering of political capital, has made a Bibi-Shelly contest a possibility.

Many things could happen before the next Israeli elections. Ehud Olmert could make a big comeback, wrest control of Kadima and resuscitate the party. Perhaps Tzipi Livni will return to life politically, and bring life to Haim Ramon's desk-drawer party. Or maybe Yair Lapid will recruit a dream team, turning his own party into a viable force. Perhaps Olmert, Livni, Lapid and Mofaz will join forces and establish a strong centrist bloc. Maybe Ehud Barak will pull a surprise, carrying out some sort of political maneuver with the adroit boldness of a military commando operation. Perhaps Aryeh Deri will rise and fall. Or other political figures could find their way into the arena and change the rules of the game. But as things stand right now, the contest appears to pit two politicians, Netanyahu and Shelly Yacimovich, who head the two historically strongest parties, Likud and Labor.

Just two years ago, nobody would have imagined that such a wild scenario could take shape. In fact, just half a year ago, a Bibi-Shelly contest seemed highly unlikely. Yet over the past year, Netanyahu has made every conceivable blunder, and squandered a significant portion of his political capital. Over the past year, Yacimovich has acted prudently, and significantly strengthened her hand. So as things stand, the new and improved Labor Party headed by Shelly is within striking distance of a Likud party that has been bruised and battered under Bibi.

The political passions burning for the Israeli social democratic lioness are no accident; and suddenly, Yacimovich poses a genuine threat to Likud. Suddenly she has turned into a genuine rival for the prime ministerial portfolio. Seven years after she took a seat in the Knesset, the former media star has turned into a force in Israeli politics. She constitutes the only chance for real change in government.

Yacimovich's ascendance forces Livni, Ramon and Kadima to consider its steps. On the eve of the last elections, Kadima, under Livni's leadership, and with Ramon's behind-the-scenes guidance, demanded that the left play dead so that Tzipi would defeat Bibi. Livni did not defeat Bibi, but the left, in fact, committed suicide: the Labor Party weakened considerably, and Meretz almost disappeared. Now, the tide has turned. If Livni, Ramon and Kadima are really committed to replacing Netanyahu, they must do now what others did three and half years ago. They must join forces with Yacimovich, or at least stand aside and let her push forward. Should Knesset mandates that have floated to the center be redirected toward a new political movement headed by the Labor Party, Israel will have an enlightened liberal bloc empowered to take the reins of the state.

Yacimovich's ascendance poses a challenge to the business community. Most powerful capitalists in Israel hate her. They view her as a dangerous demagogue who understands nothing about modern economics. They consider her a red-hued socialist who would destroy the economy and turn Israel into Greece. But Israeli businessmen need to grasp that Yacimovich currently expresses the Israeli public's yearning for internal reform. She represents the aspiration to restore public morality to Israel, to refashion it as a just, progressive state. Thus, instead of fighting her, it would be wiser for them to engage in a dialogue with the Labor leader. Many of them would be surprised to discover how the combative politician knows how to be pragmatic and realistic.

However, first and foremost, Yacimovich's ascendance poses a challenge to herself. True, she completed her undergraduate course in Israeli politics with distinction. But now she is in the big leagues. She has a chance of making it to the top. And what has worked for her up to now might not necessarily work in the future. Labor's candidate for prime minister is not the head of the socialist Mapam party, nor is she the chairwoman of a workers committee. She needs to formulate a serious economic plan, one that would promote not only social justice but also economic growth. She needs to present a creative diplomatic plan that would lead to the division of the country in a two-state solution. She needs to put together a senior staff of high-quality people who have managerial talents. If Shelly wants to replace Bibi and revive the historical Mapai party, she needs to act as Mapai did, with responsibility and statesmanlike commitment to the country's welfare.