Elections In Israel

Lapid And Livni Should Stay Out

Carlo Strenger on why Israel's center-left bloc parties should refuse to join forces with Netanyahu.

Sebastian Scheiner / AP Photo

The prospect of a narrow, extreme right/ultra-Orthodox Netanyahu government is frightening. Nevertheless Lapid and Livni should not join Netanyahu’s next government, because they are bound to be the fig leaves covering up the next government’s extremist nature.

In these last weeks, the so-called center-left bloc parties—Labor, Livni’s HaTnua Party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid—spent more time accusing each other for the failure to create a unified front than attacking the right-wing/religious bloc. This failure has momentous implications. Had these three parties agreed that they would only join a government headed by Netanyahu en bloc, they would have gained considerable bargaining power, and could have confronted him with either of two options.

They could have demanded that Netanyahu accept them as the senior coalition partner. This would have required him to first create a common platform with them, based on the principle of pushing ahead a peace process and stopping preferential treatment of the ultra-Orthodox. He could then ask the ultra-Orthodox Shas and/or Yahadut HaTora and/or the ultranationalist HaBayit HaYehudi party headed by the charismatic Naftali Bennett to join on these terms. They would probably have refused, and yet Netanyahu would have had a comfortable majority of more than 70 MKs.

Netanyahu would probably have had a problem with this scenario: He is instinctively very cautious and doesn’t like to alienate his “natural” right-religious partners. But if he had rejected the center-left bloc’s demands, he would have been stuck with a narrow extreme right-religious coalition that would not survive for long.

Either scenario would have had an advantage: the first would have led to a viable right-center coalition with a platform that might conceivably save the liberal Zionist project by moving towards an agreement with the Palestinians. The second scenario would have shown Israelis the price of the radical right’s policies: total international isolation further alienating American Jewry. Moreover, as recent polls have shown, most Israelis continue to favor the two state solution and are just afraid to implement it, and they might come to understand that the extreme right is very close to burying this option for good. As a result, Netanyahu would probably not have lasted long, and Israelis might have realized that they need another Prime Minister.

But the Center-Left bloc couldn’t agree on a common strategy and leadership, and has remained fragmented, thus playing into Bibi’s hands. Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich has said clearly that she will not join a government led by Netanyahu. This leaves Livni and Lapid as potential coalition partners, but with greatly diminished bargaining power. The likely scenario is that Netanyahu will replicate the formula he applied successfully four years ago: he will first create a right-wing religious coalition with about 65 Knesset seats, and then invite Livni and Lapid to join him.

Divided, they will have very little power to influence the government’s real agenda. At best they will get some vague promise that the government will try to resume negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has already shown that he is a grandmaster at stalling, and will continue to explain why there is no Palestinian partner. He will do so more easily in his next term, because it seems that Obama has no intention of wasting his time trying to cooperate with Bibi, who, according to Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama sees as both unreliable and unreasonable about Israel’s long-term interest.

While the prospect of an extreme right/ultra-Orthodox government is frightening, I still think that it is preferable to the situation where Livni and/or Lapid give a de facto extreme right-wing government the kosher stamp that Labor gave Netanyahu during the outgoing term.

If Lapid and Livni are lured into Bibi’s government, they will at some point realize that they aren’t making any difference; by then they will have lost credibility, and precious time will be lost. We will get the worst of all possible worlds we have lived with for four years now: an extreme right-wing government that caters to the settlers and deepens Israel’s international isolation, all the while presenting a moderate fig leaf to both Israelis and the world.

Since the future of the liberal Zionist project is bound to be decided in the coming years, it’s time to play hardball: Lapid and Livni should stay in the opposition and make sure that Netanyahu will fall soon. Hopefully by then Olmert will be done with his legal troubles, and could emerge as a forceful candidate to lead the country towards a different future.