Avi Gabbai, the new leader of Israel's centre-left Labour party, delivers his victory speech after winning the Labour party primary runoff, at an event in Tel Aviv, Israel July 10, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli politics updates: Centrism and Leftism


In the first half of this week, Israel was abuzz over statements made by the relatively new leader of the Labor party, Avi Gabbay. Speculating about his imaginary coalition, following an imaginary election, followed by his imaginary victory, Gabbay said that he will not be partnering with the Arab party to support his coalition. Speculating about an imaginary peace process, and the imaginary agreement with an imaginary partner, Gabbay also said that he would like the settlers not to be evacuated — but rather stay where they are.

Nothing of this has any immediate consequence on any reality we are all familiar with — and the fact is that what politicians say today they can easily change tomorrow (see Ariel Sharon’s evacuation of Gaza). Still, Gabbay is clearly trying a political maneuver. He is trying to get rid of the Labor’s leftist image. He is trying to move to the center and steal votes from Lapid’s Yesh Atid (and possibly also from the softer right-wing parties).

Will he succeed? It is too early to tell. Will he be able to convince his party to go along with such a strategy? The answer is yes — if it shows signs of working. If not, his party rivals will gladly use these statements to behead him (politically speaking). One thing seems clear: Gabbay, like every opposition leader of every opposition party in the world (Democrats, you too), faces a choice — does he try to build on the anger of the left, on its hatred of Bibi, and create a stark difference between his ideology and the one of the ruling coalition; or does he move to the center in the hope of attracting centrists and even some disillusioned rightists, with the assumption that the left will have no choice anyway but to support him?

Gabbay chose the center. Maybe because he is more comfortable there (he joined the political arena as a soft right-winger), maybe because he believes that is the better strategy. His voters now must decide whether they accept his choice. For some of them, it is clearly difficult.


The second half of the week was dedicated to Meretz, the party to the left of Labor. In Meretz, there is an internal battle that’s been going on for a while. A lot of it is about control of the party and personal animosities, but there is also an interesting question that the party must decide: Should it open itself to primaries, or remain a party controlled by a much smaller group of party activists?

Party leader Zehava Galon made a surprise move yesterday by resigning from the Knesset. She is the one fighting for having an open primary, as she made clear when explaining her resignation:

“I believe that I must invest all my energy in the struggle to increase our power as a party and political bloc, by opening the ranks to new audiences,” she wrote in a long Facebook post. “Meretz cannot exist as a closed club that ignores you — its voters and supporters — and blocks additional forces from taking part in our struggle to inject new blood on the left.”

Is she right to make such a demand? There are two aspects to this question: the value-based and the political. Those who believe that having open primaries is the more moral system (more democratic, less back-room deals) will support Galon. Those who think that primaries are the system with less value (lesser Knesset Members, more populist party) will not. Then there is the political question: could open primaries attract more members and voters to the party? And what if the result of open primaries is a less attractive list of candidates?

Her resignation from the Knesset was surprising, and it seems to reveal a level of desperation on Galon’s part — she might understand that this is a battle for her political future. But by doing something as dramatic as this, Galon forces the question of primary or no primary on her party in a way that is going to change the party no matter what. Either Galon wins, and the party goes to primaries, or she loses and the party replaces its leader, which would also send a clear message to the voters: Meretz is not going to become more democratic internally.


Candidates go head to head on Israel’s future

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog won’t be debating each other ahead of Israel’s March election, but English speakers in Tel Aviv who packed an event hall here got the next best thing: Candidates from five parties came out for a panel-style discussion on topics ranging from negotiations with the Palestinians to Iran nuclear policy to strengthening U.S.-Israel relations. (All the major parties were represented except for Netanyahu’s Likud, whose candidate arrived for the debate but had to leave before it began to attend a family event.)

These are the candidates who appeared:

Ayelet Shaked, Jewish Home

The candidate and her party: Shaked is a rising star in Jewish Home, a right-wing, religious Zionist party. At first blush Shaked, a secular Tel Aviv resident, would seem an odd fit in Jewish Home. But she has proved popular, ranking third after party chair Naftali Bennett and Housing Minister Uri Ariel on the party’s election slate. She has also been a vocal presence in Knesset debates and in the media — weighing in on relations with the Palestinians and Israeli policy toward African migrants — since becoming a lawmaker in 2013.

Policy positions: Jewish Home believes that achieving a two-state solution through Israeli-Palestinian talks and territorial compromise is a losing proposition. Instead, the party wants Israel to annex 60 percent of the West Bank, although Shaked acknowledged during the debate that the plan was “not realistic” in the short term. The party supports Netanyahu’s hard-line stance against Iran’s nuclear program.

What she said: “We should manage the conflict and not give up on any centimeter of land. Yes, it’s not perfect, but it’s better than any other alternative.”

Michael Oren, Kulanu

The candidate and his party: Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington, is running with the new centrist party Kulanu, ranking fourth on its slate. While the party is focused on lowering Israel’s cost of living, Oren is looking at improving Israel’s international relations. The New York native will likely be the next Knesset’s only American-born lawmaker.

Policy positions: Oren contends that the peace process has failed, but that Israel should leave the door open for future talks. In the meantime, he says, Israel should improve conditions on the ground for Palestinians in the West Bank. Oren insists that Israel must tend better to U.S. relations and has called on Netanyahu to cancel his March speech before Congress that has stirred controversy. The prime minister has been criticized for agreeing to speak stateside two weeks before the Israeli elections and not following protocol by failing to check with President Barack Obama.

What he said: “I’ve racked up more hours with Obama than any Israeli. … Irrespective of the difference between us, he is the elected representative of our most important ally in the world, and we have to learn to manage this relationship.”

Yaakov Peri, Yesh Atid

The candidate and his party: Peri, who is fifth on the centrist Yesh Atid slate, is a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency and served as science and technology minister until last year. Yesh Atid is the Knesset’s largest party but is middling in the polls. In this campaign, the party has targeted domestic issues like fighting government corruption and working on economic reform.

Policy positions: Yesh Atid contends that bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have failed and has proposed a regional conference with willing Arab nations like Egypt and Jordan to advance Israeli-Palestinian (and broader Middle East) peace. Peri opposes Netanyahu’s scheduled March speech before the U.S. Congress.

What he said: “Those countries are ready to sit with Israel. To reach a settlement is possible, and to [have] bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians is possible inside this regional conference.”

Hilik Bar, Zionist Union (Labor-Hatnuah)

The candidate and his party: Bar is the secretary-general of Israel’s left-wing Labor Party, which combined with the centrist Hatnuah in December to form the Zionist Union. Bar, seventh on the Zionist Union slate, is a vocal advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace. He chairs the Knesset caucuses for promoting a two-state solution and strengthening Israeli-European relations. Tied with Likud in the polls, Zionist Union has pledged to improve Israel’s relations with its allies.

Policy positions: Bar says Israel needs to achieve a two-state-solution because the alternative is either apartheid or a binational state with the Palestinians. He admits that negotiations would be difficult, but says a Zionist Union government would push hard for a peace accord. While his party supported Netanyahu’s stance on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Bar believes the congressional speech by the prime minister is not worth harming U.S.-Israel relations.

What he said: “A two-state solution is the only possible and viable solution for a true Zionist — a respectable divorce, and not a Catholic marriage with them.”

Tamar Zandberg, Meretz 

The candidate and her party: Zandberg, a former Tel Aviv city councilwoman and fifth on the Meretz slate, is an assertive advocate of women’s rights and religion-state separation in the Knesset. Her left-wing Meretz party has seen its poll position dip as Zionist Union’s has risen. To bounce back, Meretz is positioning itself as the “real left” and pledging to oppose any right-wing government.

Policy positions: Zandberg was more optimistic than her fellow candidates regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace. She says the blueprint for a peace treaty is well known and accepted internationally, and that a left-wing government could achieve a peace treaty. Meretz is dovish on security issues, and Zandberg opposes Netanyahu’s March speech in Washington.

What she said: “If this government and the ones before it were very clear about their right-wing ideology in all aspects, the next one should be very clear in its left-wing ideology.”

As Obama takes second term, Israelis wonder what the future holds

Most Israelis were asleep as the polls closed in America and voters waited for the results, but on one rooftop in central Tel Aviv a party with loud classic rock music and flashing lights was going strong.

It was the pro-Obama election-watching party of Israel’s left-wing Meretz party. Deviating from a solidly anti-Obama consensus in Israel — a poll showed Israeli Jews preferring Republican challenger Mitt Romney over the president, 59 percent to 22 percent — Meretz’s young members drank, talked and danced around a projection screen alternating between CNN and Israeli news coverage.

For members of Israel’s embattled left, the party was a chance to celebrate liberalism. Attendees wore bright green shirts reading “My heart is leftist” or sporting Obama paraphernalia from 2008. A cheer rose as an Israeli TV station presented a photo slideshow of the president’s life.

“We identify with the progressive values Obama represents,” said Tomer Reznik, 23, chairman of the Young Meretz group. “On one hand he supports Israel, and pushes Israel with the other hand.”

Hours later, past 3 a.m. local time, when the results began coming in from Florida and Ohio, two Israeli political diehards sat at the back of the popular American bar Mike’s Place alongside small groups of American tourists and expatriates.

“I saw the four debates,” said Asaf Chen, 27. “Romney hasn’t been president and he came with lots of promises. Obama had four years to do things and he didn’t exactly do it.”

After it became clear that Obama won the election, Israeli officialdom reacted quickly.

“The security relationship between the United States and Israel is rock solid, and I look forward to working with President Obama to further strengthen this relationship,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement of congratulations. “I look forward to working with him to advance our goals of peace and security.”

President Shimon Peres also offered his congratulations.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has praised Obama more than Netanyahu, said he has “no doubt that the Obama administration will continue its policy — whereby Israel’s security is at its very foundations — as well as its efforts to tackle the challenges facing all of us in the region; all the while continuing to strive for further progress in the peace process.”

The Palestinian Authority’s official news service, Wafa, reported that PA President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated Obama and encouraged him to continue pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Political analysts, however, warned that there could be obstacles ahead for the two leaders. Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama has been rocky, with public spats over a freeze on West Bank settlement building and the fight against Iran’s nuclear program punctuating the last four years.

During the campaign, Netanyahu was seen as favoring Romney, and that could open up Netanyahu to attack in the Israeli campaign leading up to the Jan. 22 election.

“Left-wing parties will say Netanyahu committed himself to Romney, and now it’s going to deteriorate the relationship between Israel and the U.S.,” said Avraham Diskin, a Hebrew University political science professor.

But public pressure from Obama could strengthen Netanyahu’s hand in the Israeli contest, which the incumbent is predicted to win.

“If he’s too rough with Netanyahu, it will be counterproductive,” said Bar-Ilan University professor Shmuel Sandler. “It will make people rally around Netanyahu. People don’t like when someone from outside pressures us.”

In any case, Israeli analysts said Obama is unlikely to rock the boat of mostly positive U.S.-Israeli relations during his second term, both because he has been chastened by his failure to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front and is likely to be preoccupied with domestic concerns.

“Obama at the beginning of the first term is not Obama now,” Diskin said. “Obama was a great believer in all kinds of solutions, and the reality was quite disappointing. Concerning Iran, the Muslim world, the Palestinian Authority, he’s much more sober today.”

Tensions could flare between the two countries should Obama attempt to pressure Israel to make concessions in return for U.S. action on Iran, Sandler said. But Sandler said that any U.S. pressure will come only next year or later, as Obama first must set up his new administration and deal with domestic battles.

“In the two months that remain for him, he’ll be too busy with confirmations, forming his government and the economy,” Sandler said. “He’s not a strong president who can do whatever he wants. He has a divided country.”

Yes, we cantankerous

Livni must demonstrate new type of leadership

Tzipi Livni’s victory in the Kadima Party primary is the result of the Israeli version of the clamor for change that we are seeing across the democratic world. She prevailed despite ruthless attacks on her experience, her judgment, her appearance and her gender. Her record of probity, her straightforward style and — most significantly — her decidedly civilian aura definitely worked in her favor.

But does Livni have it in her to capitalize on these currents and take the risks necessary to cement a new kind of politics in Israel?

She faces incredible opportunities and formidable challenges. Ultimately, the test of her leadership rests on her ability to move Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to an equitable and durable conclusion.

The new head of Kadima must begin to prepare herself and her party for the likelihood of new elections in the spring. Her main opponents — Ehud Barak of Labor and Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud — justifiably perceive her as the single-most- serious threat to their respective political ambitions.

These two former prime ministers hoping for a second chance cannot ignore the polls that consistently show Kadima under Livni’s leadership pulverizing Barak’s Labor Party and giving Netanyahu’s Likud Party a close contest. That is why they did everything in their power during the primaries to promote Livni’s main intraparty rival, Shaul Mofaz. Now, they can be expected to step up their attacks on her.

Livni also faces ambiguity abroad. Indeed, her key negotiating partners present their own set of challenges. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is on her way out, as may be Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose term is set to expire next January.

Under these circumstances, the conventional wisdom is that Livni has two diametrically opposed options: She can put negotiations on the back burner and call for new elections as soon as possible, in the hope of taking advantage of her current popularity to consolidate her political position. Or, she can try to delay new elections as long as possible — by acceding to inevitably exorbitant demands from coalition partners — and use the limited amount of time at her disposal to reach an accord with the Palestinians.

Livni may be sorely tempted to follow the first course. Her advisers and some of her closest supporters believe that continuing the negotiating process that began last year in Annapolis would be an electoral liability, especially given the growing preoccupation of the Israeli electorate with domestic socioeconomic issues.

Opting to proceed quickly to the polls, while forgoing the possibility of making progress on the Palestinian front, Livni would be left with little ability to affect policy in the immediate term. Livni might then opt to fall back on a politics rooted in style and personality in the run-up to new elections.

Should she choose this route, however, she will be playing directly into Netanyahu’s hands. He knows full well that several months can be a lifetime in politics, enough to darken Livni’s halo with clouds of doubt regarding her leadership abilities and her decisiveness. Wrangling with recalcitrant party cohorts and getting muddied in Israel’s political quagmire would risk sacrificing the clean image that ushered her to where she is today.

But forming a new government without elections may be impossible, given the distribution of seats in the current Knesset, especially since only Labor — which can expect to do poorly at the polls — has a strong interest in maintaining a Kadima-led government. And even if a coalition arrangement is reached, the political price would be prohibitive. Capitulating to the demands of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party would prove to be a major liability down the line in terms of public opinion, and striking a deal with the Palestinians would, in any event, probably destabilize such a tenuous coalition.

Thankfully, Livni does not have to buy into the binary vise devised by the pundits. There is a third alternative: She can call for new elections and, in the meantime, step up talks with the Palestinians with a view toward concluding a comprehensive agreement that can be presented for public approval at the polls.

Such a move may speak to her Palestinian and American partners, who share her sense of urgency. It would at least temporarily confound her domestic opposition. Above all, it could salvage the last chance for a two-state solution.

The success of such a daring strategy hinges on Livni’s capacity to muster real political courage. She must be willing to inject new substance into the faltering negotiations with the Palestinians. This requires a readiness to revisit the roots of the conflict and to recognize the fundamental asymmetry that has plagued past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

While success is not guaranteed, conditions are ripe for progress — especially if Livni takes the additional (and long overdue) step of embracing the Arab Peace Initiative, something that would have strong regional, as well as international, resonance.

Could Livni pull this off? The answer is unclear. What is evident is that if she fails to take an audacious step of this sort, her political career will be short-lived and prospects for a negotiated settlement will dim and perhaps disappear entirely.

It is up to Livni to demonstrate that her victory in the Kadima primaries augurs a new type of leadership. Otherwise she — like her once-promising predecessors — will become a footnote in the history of an Israel still desperately looking for ways to open up a new political horizon.

Naomi Chazan is president of the New Israel Fund. She is a former deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, where she represented the Meretz Party from 1992 to 2003.