Israeli Elections

Generals Out, Journalists In As Center-Left Leaders

Geoffrey Levin on the journalists that have taken over for the generals leading Israel's center-left parties, and why it might not last.

Four years ago, two political parties vied for the support of Israel’s center-left voters—Kadima, which lost one of its then-29 seats in the 2009 elections, and Labor, which fell from 19 to 13 seats in the Knesset. In the time since, both parties faced near-extinction. Labor has recovered from seemingly total collapse; Kadima, however, has not.

Both parties sank partially 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 2013 elections, Israel’s center-left has embraced a new type of leader: former journalists, namely Shelly Yachimovich and Yair Lapid, who lead two parties competing for these voters. In many ways, this “de-militarization” of Israel’s center-left—reflecting the rise of a celebrity culture and infotainment society in Israel, as in the United States—defines the upcoming elections.

Ever since Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, many believed that only someone with strong security credentials could lead the center-left to victory. But after Rabin’s 1995 assassination, the record of “military peacemakers” has gone downhill. In 1996, Israel’s center-left coalesced around former IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak. Heralded as the next Rabin, Barak defeated Likud incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu in 1999. Though renowned as a military genius, Barak’s twenty-month tenure as Prime Minister went poorly. Barak was criticized for his unsuccessful attempts to make peace and his mismanagement of domestic affairs. After the Second Intifada began, Barak lost the job.

After another former general led Labor to defeat in 2003, the party selected trade unionist Amir Peretz before the 2006 elections. But Peretz’s lackluster performance as Defense Minister led Laborites to desire a leader with a heftier military background. Thus in 2007, Barak returned to Labor’s helm, initiating the party’s unraveling. Many party members protested after Barak’s Labor joined Netanyahu’s rightist coalition in 2009; even more balked after the government made no progress on peace. His misdeeds even led one commentator to call Barak “politically autistic.” Sensing unrest, Barak preemptively broke off from his own party in 2011; many wrote political obituaries for Labor, which withered to a mere eight seats.

Former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has also disappointed supporters. Despite his hesitance to join the party, Mofaz nearly won Kadima’s leadership election in 2008, and in March 2012, he defeated incumbent Kadima leader Tzipi Livni.

In Mofaz’s defense, Kadima was sliding even before he became its chairman, as Livni was a poor opposition leader. But when Livni left, Kadima was hovering around ten seats in the polls; today, the party polls between zero and two. In May, Mofaz broke his promise not to join the Netanyahu government; in joining, he vowed that the unity government would amend the military draft and initiate electoral reform. When the government did neither, Mofaz withdrew empty-handed, appearing naïve, dishonest, and ineffective—and Kadima has all but collapsed.

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. After Barak abandoned Labor, former journalist Shelly Yachimovich won the party chairmanship. Amidst the social welfare protests of 2011, Yachimovich rebuilt and reoriented her party around socio-economic issues. Playing off Mofaz’s missteps, Yachimovich embraced the title of opposition leader, revitalizing her party with a renewed sense of mission. At the same time, another former television anchor, Yair Lapid, founded 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. Now polling around 8 to 10 seats—not terrible for someone with no political experience—Yesh Atid trails Labor, which, at 16 to 20 seats, may become the Knesset’s second largest party.

Though Yachimovich has proved an able legislator, neither she nor Lapid have been cabinet ministers—a credential held by all recent Israeli leaders. Yet, though either may have more political talent than Barack or Mofaz, few Israelis envision Lapid or Yachimovich as Prime Minister. It is no coincidence that neither candidate speaks much about national security. Lacking credibility, both tend to avoid security issues entirely, instead sticking to domestic affairs.

Livni has tried to fill the void, focusing on diplomacy, but her party has not gained traction. Her less experienced opponents are not yielding voters to her, keeping her polling down to ten seats—a disappointing number for a former Foreign Minister. Meanwhile, many in the defense establishment are critical of Netanyahu, but no big names are running; some cannot due to legislation keeping them out of politics directly 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.