Labor Could Replace Nationalists in Israel’s Coalition

Labor seems increasingly willing but Benjamin Netanyahu would risk alienating his right-wing supporters.

German chancellor Angela Merkel meet with Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, February 26, 2014
German chancellor Angela Merkel meet with Israeli Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, February 26, 2014 (Bundesregierung)

Speculation is rife in Israel that the opposition Labor Party will soon join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government at the expense of the nationalist right.

Last month, Aryeh Deri, the economy minister and leader of the orthodox Shas party, said both Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu favored a unity government. He added that Shas, which has seven seats in parliament, would be comfortable in such an arrangement.

Herzog dismissed Deri’s statement at the time as the “result of the heat wave; summer hallucinations and heat stroke.”

But in a television interview on Sunday, he refused to rule out joining the government.

Moshe Kahlon, who split off from Netanyahu’s Likud last year to lead the centrist Kulanu party, said the following day he would be willing to resign as finance minister if that’s what it took to get Herzog on board.

His party — which focuses on cost-of-living issues and could act as a bridge between Labor and Likud — has ten seats. With Shas, the four would have comfortable eleven-seat majority between them as opposed to the right-wing coalition’s one-seat majority in the Knesset now.

If Labor were to enter the government, it would likely be at the expense of the nationalist Jewish Home, led by education minister Naftali Bennett. The party, which is Likud‘s main competitor for settler votes, rejects the left’s insistence on restarting the peace process with the Palestinians.

Josh Freedman reports for The Eastern Project that Herzog’s motivation for joining his rival, Netanyahu, in the government could be a Labor leadership contest that is due in May. “Herzog knows that if it does take place, it will be the end of his dream” to become prime minister himself, according to Freedman.

Herzog had seemed on the verge of ousting Netanyahu earlier this year when his alliance with former justice minister Tzipi Livni was polling ahead of Likud. But Netanyahu eked out a victory at the last moment, drawing right-wing votes away from Jewish Home in particular with warnings that Arab parties and the left were about to take over. (Although no single poll had given the Arab and left-wing parties an overall majority.)

Now may be Herzog’s last chance to save his political career.

The Labor Party has the same relationship with their leaders as the French did during the Reign of Terror of their revolution back in the 1790s. Has he failed? Yes. Off with his head!

Herzog’s plan, writes Freedman, is to postpone the leadership vote until 2017 — when there will likely be another election. He would join the cabinet in the meantime, probably as defense minister, to raise his profile. And Labor would finally see some internal stability when years of infighting and repeated leadership changes have dented its reputation.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, would get a comfortable majority, unshackling him from the whims of his junior coalition partners.

But the risk of upsetting the religious Zionist and pro-settler base should give him pause. Bennett would effectively become the opposition leader to a centrist government, grooming him as the right’s natural successor to Netanyahu.

For a prime minister who has more often chosen the safety of governing on the right — to the extent that he was willing to compromise Likud‘s once-liberal values and lose middle-class voters — than risk governing from the center, that still seems a dubious prospect.