Israel’s next election campaign began unofficially last week, as Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich announced that she would move up primaries for the party leadership to November. Yacimovich’s decision was logical: She is vulnerable to a challenge, with Labor having underperformed the polls in January’s vote, but remains strong with the activists who vote in the party’s primaries. By scheduling the vote just four months from now—two less than a new Labor party member needs to vote in primaries—she prevents her likely opponents (fellow Knesset members Isaac Herzog, Eitan Cabel, and Erel Margalit) from bringing new supporters into the party. Yacimovich’s decision also preempts a deus-ex-machina challenge from Gabi Ashkenazi, the popular and ambitious former army chief who is still mired in a police investigation relating to a tiff with former Defense Minister Ehud Barak.The stakes are higher than they were when the former television reporter and avowed socialist took over the party’s reins in 2011, a time—following then-leader Barak’s defection—when the party had an all-time low of eight seats in the 120-member Knesset: Indeed, the next election could well be the first since 1999 in which Labor will have a realistic shot of winning.
One could say that Labor is finishing the third phase in its long history. In its first phase, from the founding of the state (and the years prior) until 1977, the party dominated Israeli politics, winning every election by a healthy margin. In the second phase, which lasted until 2000, the mantle of national leadership floated between it and the Likud (with a number of unity governments in between). And in the third phase, following the eruption of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, Labor shrunk to a mid-sized party which at best became a junior partner in someone else’s coalition. During this hectic phase, the party went through eight leaders (Likud, by contrast, has had only four in its four-decade existence: Begin, Shamir, Sharon, and Netanyahu).
But with most polls showing Labor in a strong second, the party may very well be entering a fourth phase—call it the Yacimovich phase. Anything can happen between now and November, to be sure—Labor primaries operate under a notoriously unpredictable runoff system—but for now, Yacimovich seems likely to become only the fourth Labor leader to win two leadership elections (the other three are Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak). If Yacimovich wants to follow Rabin, Peres, and Barak into the prime minister’s office, however, she needs four things to happen.
1. Re-establish Labor as the dominant force on the center-left
One of the main reasons for Labor’s malaise in recent years was that new centrist forces ate into its support base among the secular Ashkenazi middle class—first Kadima in the 2006 and 2009 elections and then now-Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party in this past election. Yacimovich doesn’t need to destroy Lapid (indeed, he would likely be an integral part of any Labor-led coalition), but she does need the party to shrink to a point that it is seen again as a niche party rather than as a competitor for national leadership. Fortunately for Yacimovich, Lapid is doing much of the work for her. By accepting the post of finance minister (a job she wisely turned down) at a time of ballooning budget deficits, he set himself up as the fall guy for the inevitable austerity budget. If the economy turns around, and if his party makes good on other lofty campaign promises, Lapid may yet be forgiven by Israeli voters. But for now, the budget is taking its toll. Yesh Atid, which was polling as high as 30 seats after the election, is now down to 15, with Labor picking up most of the slack.
2. Bring other parties into the Labor fold
Even with the erosion in Yesh Atid’s support, Labor is still polling at least five seats behind Likud-Beiteinu (the alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud and deposed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu). The right-wing bloc proved to be smaller than the sum of its parts, but Netanyahu still came away from Election Day with a significantly larger faction than he otherwise would have had. Yacimovich should consider taking a page from his playbook by bringing at least one other left-of-center party into the Labor fold. An alliance with the leftist Meretz is a non-starter, as it would hurt the party with centrist voters. There are two logical candidates: the “Hatnua” party of now-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, which almost joined forces with Labor in the last election, and Kadima (now led by former defense minister Shaul Mofaz). Both parties face extinction in the next election, particularly if the Knesset approves plans to double the electoral threshold from two to four percent
Bringing Livni and Mofaz (and their supporters) under Labor’s wing would put the party in contention for national leadership: If you add the two smaller parties’ seats in recent polls to the Labor column, the party would overtake Likud-Beiteinu in most recent polls.
3. Entice the ultra-Orthodox
Even if the center-left bloc gains a few seats between now and the next elections, it is highly unlikely that Labor will be able to form a government without the support of the ultra-Orthdox parties (if you subtract the anti-Zionist Arab parties, which are not a viable coalition option for any Israeli government, the parties of the left and the center fall well short of a majority). The ultra-Orthodox threw in their lot with Netanyahu in the past two elections. But Netanyahu burned them a few months ago by entering into a coalition with their arch-nemesis Lapid instead and signing onto his plans for ending the military-service exemption and other ultra-Orthodox privileges. These moves are, objectively, positive developments for the State of Israel, so any cozying up Yacimovich does is going to be somewhat cynical. But Yacimovich doesn’t need to pledge to reverse all of the current government’s gains, just to be the lesser of two evils. She could, for example, promise to raise child allowances—a favorite of Shas and United Torah Judaism’s large-family constituency—as part of her overall welfare-state agenda. Current Shas leader Aryeh Deri, a dove when it comes to the peace process, would be a natural partner.
4. Prove that she is prime ministerial material
While Israelis generally like Yacimovich, most have a hard time seeing her in the prime minister’s office. There is an element of gender bias here, to be sure (the same bias that worked against the eminently qualified Livni). But it is also based on Yacimovich’s lack of governing experience and national-security bona fides.
Yacimovich can’t appoint herself a four-star general, a la Kim Jong Un, but she can try to lure some prominent security figures into the party before the next election (Ashkenazi and three other left-leaning security figures will be finishing their three-year “cooling off” periods soon). She can also, as she has been doing lately, tone down her laser-like focus on socialist economics and begin talking about Israel’s security challenges and peace opportunities.
Turning down the finance ministry was a double-edged sword for Yacimovich. On the one hand, it spared her Lapid’s headaches, but it also robbed her of a chance to gain valuable governing experience (all Israeli prime ministers had prior ministerial experience). Yacimovich may get a second chance before long. If Netanyahu makes even modest concessions to the Palestinians in upcoming peace talks, Naftali Bennett will likely take his right-wing Jewish Home party out of the coalition, forcing Yacimovich to make good on her promise to be Netanyahu’s “safety net” for peace and bring Labor into the coalition.
Indeed, Yacimovich may need to join Netanyahu before she can defeat him.