The Tel Aviv Likudniks Who Stole Livni's Political Positions

What do the three Likud ministers who rebelled against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and voted against allocations to Orthodox men have in common? All three live in Tel Aviv.

What do the three Likud ministers who rebelled against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and voted against allocations to Orthodox men have in common? All three live in Tel Aviv.

Gideon Sa'ar, Limor Livnat and Gilad Erdan chose to represent their secular city, whose residents loathe the ultra-Orthodox and especially the Shas party; the three stood as a united front against their political patron, Netanyahu, who is trying to protect his coalition alliance with the Haredi parties. Ironically, Minister Silvan Shalom, the prime minister's big rival, spoke out against the allocations but abstained from voting. Perhaps because he lives on the other side of the bridge, in Ramat Gan, where things are seen differently.

The trio's revolt expressed the most compelling struggle under way in Israel - the battle of the "bubble." Voters in Tel Aviv and its outlying areas will account for 20-30 Knesset seats in the next elections. These voters cast ballots before primarily for Kadima; but opposition leader Tzipi Livni's apparent weakness vis-a-vis the popular Netanyahu encourages Kadima's opponents to canvass among Tel Aviv's middle-of-the-road voters. They are campaigning persistently for these votes.

Gideon Sa'ar from Likud, Isaac Herzog from Labor, and journalist Yair Lapid, who has yet to join the political arena, are three Tel Aviv residents from the same age group, who rub shoulders in the same social circle, and are scouting votes among the same constituency. They have a keen sense of the spirit of the times. In a period of security calm and economic growth, the public drifts toward the moderate right. Revolutionary militants gain strength during times of crisis, after wars or during economic stagnation, when people are worried about their future and seek change. That is how Lenin came to power in Russia, and Barack Obama reached the White House; similarly, Avigdor Lieberman moved from the political margins toward the leadership in a period of stress.

But when the housing market is strong and stock shares are soaring, as is the case in Israel in late 2010, the public is content, and the party continues. This is the hour for prophets of the new main street. Sa'ar, Herzog and Lapid define themselves as belonging to the right, left and center, respectively; that is, they appear to represent differing political camps, but their views are virtually identical. All three promise to resurrect the Ben-Gurion spirit of patriotic bipartisanship, centered around IDF duty and core curriculum studies for every child. All three oppose special allocations to the religious and want the ultra-Orthodox to find jobs, but they are wary of antagonism toward the religious (Lapid: "The law for allocations to the Orthodox is a manifest fraud, but a discourse based on hatred of the Haredim will not move us forward;" Herzog: "The allocations law is self-defeating and reverses the laudable, evolving trend by which the Orthodox are becoming integrated in the workplace." )

Regarding diplomacy and the peace process, the gaps between these three are narrow. All agree that Israel has justice on its side, and the Palestinians are responsible for perpetuating the dispute. Herzog, putatively the leftist, says Mahmoud Abbas is a negotiation partner; but, like Netanyahu, he demands that the Palestinian Authority leader recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Sa'ar, supposedly the rightist, supported a freeze in the settlements in exchange for American guarantees and incentives. Both men speak passionately about the threat posed by Iran and about the danger of Israel's "delegitimization" in Europe. These positions point to the prolongation of the status quo in the territories, but they proffer no support to the settlers. In short, they are popular positions in Tel Aviv.

Sa'ar and Herzog represent the same political strategy. In their view, Likud and Labor should move toward the center and stay clear of the political extremes. They disagree only about policy toward Arab citizens of Israel. The education minister wants to strengthen Jewish and Zionist values and eliminate the term "Nakba" from textbooks; the social affairs minister brands Lieberman's loyalty pledge law "racism." Hence, attitudes toward Israel's Arab community is what separates the left from the right in Israel, rather than debates about control over the territories. Lieberman was the first to grasp this and fashioned himself the leader of the new right.

Livni is in trouble. Her rivals have stolen her positions. Should she not redefine herself, Knesset seats will leave Kadima and drift back to Likud, Labor and some future Yair Lapid party. The next elections will be decided in Tel Aviv. That is where the political map will be drawn; and Tel Aviv residents will decide whether Likud stays in power, whether Kadima survives and whether Labor will be reborn. The rebellion of the Tel Aviv ministers against Netanyahu on the religious allocations law portends an intense future election battle.