After years of relying on military leaders, Israel’s center-left gives journalists a try.
By: Geoffrey Levin
Ed Note: A version of the piece appeared in The Daily Beast.
Four years ago, two political parties vied for the support of Israeli center-left voters – Kadima, which lost only one of its then-29 seats in the February 2009 elections, and Labor, which sank from 19 to 13 seats in the Knesset. In the time since, both parties faced near-extinction. The latter, Labor, has more than recovered from what could have been permanent collapse; the former, Kadima, has not, and will likely fall into political oblivion after the January 22 elections.
Both parties sank in significant part due to political ineptness of generals-turned-politicians – Ehud Barak of Labor, and Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, whose military credentials led their followers to overlook their shortcomings as political tacticians. In the upcoming elections, candidates of a different background have emerged to claim leadership of Israel’s center-left – former journalists, namely Shelly Yachimovich and Yair Lapid, who lead two of the three main parties competing for these voters. The “de-militarization” of Israel’s center-left has already had an impact on Israeli politics – and in part shapes the contours of the upcoming elections.
Ever since Yitzhak Rabin led Labor to victory and signed the Oslo Accords, the conventional wisdom has been that only a leader with real security credentials could muster the support for a risky peace deal. But ever since Rabin’s assassination in 1995, the record of “military peacemakers” has gone downhill. In 1996, Israel’s center-left coalesced around former IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak as its leader. Heralded as the next Rabin, Barak defeated Likud incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999. Though renowned in Israel as a military genius, Barak’s twenty-month tenure as Prime Minister went poorly. Barak was criticized both for his unsuccessful attempts to make peace and mismanagement of domestic affairs. After the Second Intifada began, Barak was trounced in the 2001 election.
After falling short with another former general at the helm in the 2003 elections, Labor selected former trade unionist Amir Peretz prior to the elections of 2006. But Peretz’s lackluster performance as Defense Minister led many in Labor to long for a leader with a heftier military background. Thus in 2007, Barak made his political comeback in the party. But Barak’s return ultimately led the party’s unraveling. Many party members protested after his controversial decision to join Netanyahu’s rightist coalition in 2009; even those who gave Barak the benefit of the doubt balked after the government made no progress on the peace process. His lavish lifestyle and political miscalculations led one commentator to call Barak “politically autistic.” Sensing unrest within Labor, Barak preemptively broke off from his own party in January 2011; at the time, many wrote obituaries for the once-dominant Labor Party, which withered to a mere eight seats.
Former IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has also disappointed supporters. Despite Mofaz’s initial hesitance to join the party, Mofaz nearly won in Kadima’s closed leadership election in 2008, and last April, he defeated incumbent Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in a rematch.
In Mofaz’s defense, Kadima was sliding even before he was selected to lead it, as she proved to be a poor opposition leader. But when Livni left, Kadima was hovering around 10 seats in the polls; today, the party that won 28 seats in 2009 is polling between zero and two. Shortly after his election, Mofaz broke his promise not to join the Netanyahu government; in joining, he vowed that the new unity government was worthwhile since it would tackle tough issues such as amending the military draft and electoral reform. When the government failed to do either, Mofaz withdrew empty-handed, appearing naïve, dishonest, and ineffective. Since then, Mofaz’s Kadima has been a shadow of its former self.
Even before Livni reentered politics to form her own political party, Kadima had already ceded its constituency to two other parties – a revived Labor and a new party, Yesh Atid (“There is a future”). After Barak abandoned his party, former journalist Shelly Yachimovich won the party chairmanship. Playing of the social welfare protests of summer 2011, Yachimovich rebuilt and reoriented her party around socio-economic issues, proving to be more politically savvy than most had believed. Playing off Mofaz’s missteps, Yachimovich proudly embraced the title of opposition leader, revitalizing her party with a sense of mission that it long lacked. At the same time, another former television anchor, Yair Lapid, founded his own political party, Yesh Atid. Running in the shadow of his father, a popular secularist politician, Lapid has had less of a clear platform, with vaguely populist themes and a personal appeal. Now polling around 8-10 seats – not terrible for someone with no political experience – Yesh Atid trails Labor, which may emerge as the Knesset’ second largest party, with an anticipated 16-20 seats.
Though Yachimovich has proved an able legislator, neither she nor Lapid have served as a cabinet minister – a credential held by all prime ministers Israelis have elected in the past 30 years. Yet they would appear to have more raw political talent than many of the military men in politics. Surely, they can relate with people better than Mofaz or Barak – who also killed his new political party, Atzmaut, by surprising his supporters with a resignation announcement. Yet few people envision Lapid or Yachimovich as Prime Minister. It is no coincidence that neither Yachimovich nor Lapid speak much about security and defense issues. Lacking credibility, both tend to avoid security issues entirely, instead sticking to domestic affairs.
Livni has tried to fill the void with a focus on diplomatic affairs, but her party has yet to gain traction. But her less experienced opponents are not yielding voters to her, keeping her polling down to ten seats, a disappointing number for a party led by a former Foreign Minister. Meanwhile, many in the defense establishment are critical of Netanyahu, but no big names have stepped into the ring; some cannot due to a law that keeps them out of politics for two years after their retirement.
The center-left dilemma of 2013 is that those with the most political skills lack security credibility, and those with security credibility lack political skills – or are not running. The center-left’s romance with generals might have ended, but the realities of Israelis’ security concerns mean it might not be over for long.
Geoffrey Levin is a Senior Editor at the Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons