Today the Democratic Party is trying to find itself after Hilary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. However, not long ago it was the Republicans that were searching for their identity after two consecutive defeats led to eight years of President Barack Obama in the White House. In Israel, it is the Labor Party that is attempting to find itself after eight consecutive years of Benjamin Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office.
On March 23, 2015, Senator Ted Cruz became the first Republican candidate to announce his candidacy for President. By the end of July 2015 the Republican Party had 17 major candidates running for President. Erel Margalit released his first campaign video on April 19, 2016, back when it was not known when the Labor Primary would take place. There are currently nine candidates that are expected to run, and that number may increase to the double digits before the deadline on May 1, 2017. We now know the first round will take place on July 3. After no candidate reaches 40%, the top two candidates will go head-to-head in a second round to determine the winner on July 13.
Some early polls in 2015 suggested that former nominee Mitt Romney could win the nomination, but in the end he decided to sit out the race. Early polls in the Labor race suggested that Isaac Herzog’s predecessor Shelly Yachimovich could win, but she decided to sit out this race. Romney tried to influence the Republican Primary, but it didn’t work. Yachimovich might find a similar problem.
Almost every poll showed that every Republican candidate would lose to Clinton. Today the Zionist Union faces the same situation in the polls. In the current KnessetJeremy Polling Average of the last seven polls the Zionist Union is averaging 10.4 seats. That is fifth place, behind Yesh Atid, Likud, Joint List and Bayit Yehudi. Three of the last six polls have been in single digits, a sharp drop from the 24 seats they won in the last general election. Yet, similar to the 2015 Republicans, there are no shortage of candidates ready to run for Labor’s leadership.
The incumbent Herzog will most likely face off against party veterans Amir Peretz and Eitan Cabel as his main rivals. 2-term MKs Margalit and Omar Bar Lev are in the second tier, as both have been preparing for the race since the Zionist Union’s general election defeat. The third tier is made up of outside challengers Avi Gabbay, Eldad Yaniv, Amiram Levin and Yom-Tov Samia, not considered by party insiders to be candidates with a significant power base. The rules of the game were set retroactively that whoever signed up as a party member by February 28 is eligible to vote in the primary. Discussions will take place on a merger with Livni’s Party which could allow her to become the 10th candidate if she does not get the United Nations job. Supposedly, discussions over an open-primary system will also be discussed but it is not likely that it will be adopted because it will harm the chances of the top tier candidates that currently control the party.
The next four months will be an interesting time for the Labor Party and the Israeli left. Similar to the Republicans in 2015-2016, the Israeli Labor Party of 2017 is severely splintered as they search for their new identity. With so many candidates it is difficult to predict how the race will end or who will make it to the head-to-head, but I can predict that this will be the ugliest race Labor has ever seen.
Moshe Yaalon and Avi Dichter have known each other for a long time. Their approach to politics has been different, and this week that played out in the same news cycle as both announced their intention to run for Prime Minister. Yaalon was named Deputy IDF COS in 1999 and was promoted to the position of IDF COS in 2002. Dichter was Deputy Director of the Shin Bet in 1999 and was named Director in 2000. Both Yaalon and Dichter served in those sensitive security positions and participated in security cabinet meetings with politicians until 2005. Yaalon clashed with Prime Minister Sharon over the disengagement and was forced to leave his position early. Dichter backed Sharon, joined Kadima, and became Olmert’s Homeland Security Minister from 2006-2009. Yaalon entered politics with Likud in 2009 and was vocally displeased when he didn’t receive the Defense Ministry from Netanyahu, despite his #8 position on the party list. During that term Dichter correctly predicted when Kadima was about to sink and jumped ship to Likud to become Home Front Defense Minister from 2012-2013. Dichter didn’t win a seat in the 2013 election but remained in the Likud and started to work on winning over the base. Yaalon became Defense Minister in 2013. Yaalon frequently quarreled with senior ministers, both inside his party and out, and had terrible relationships with his deputies Danny Danon and Eli Ben-Dahan. Instead of accepting the Foreign Affairs portfolio when Yisrael Beitenu joined the government he decided to resign from both the cabinet and the Knesset. He ignored that although it might seem like a demotion in the short term the Foreign Ministry was something that could help him ultimately become Prime Minister one day by showing a different, non-security side to him. There were 17 Likud MK candidates that ran for 12 Likud Ministerial positions at the start of the government. Not only did Dichter not receive a ministerial position at the start of the government, he is currently one of only three candidates that is still an MK and not a minister. The other two are Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and MK Benny Begin, who started out the term as a minister. Dichter took what was given to him, the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairmanship, and kept working the base.
Yaalon does not have a reputation for getting along with other high-level officials. He clashed with Sharon over the disengagement, and we now know based on the State Comptroller Report that in security cabinet meetings Yaalon clashed from time to time with Netanyahu as well. Publicly, Yaalon attacked coalition party leaders Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman during the war itself, and his criticism hasn’t stopped since. His recent leak criticizing Yair Lapid, his one potential political suiter, casts serious doubt on his political skills. Announcing a new party following the State Comptroller Report has narrowed his options at a point when there is no reason to limit them. He announced no additional candidates on his list, nor did he even present a party name so that the polls of this week could provide free branding publicity for him. Scenario polls show a new Yaalon Party earning 8-10 seats (before the report), a far cry from the “national leadership of the country” that he is running for. Center parties such as Kulanu and Yesh Atid proved that it doesn’t make sense to run for Prime Minister in a new center party during the first or even second term. Can someone who never made it above #7 in a Likud primary really be successful in the already crowded center-right?
Dichter also announced this weekend that he is running for Prime Minister. The coalition agreements allow Netanyahu to appoint 12 Likud Ministers, and he currently has one vacancy. If Netanyahu does appoint a 12th Likud Minister I expect that Dichter just improved his chances of getting it over Hotovely or Begin. Netanyahu knows that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer. As a Minister Dichter will be forced to have an identical voting record to Netanyahu. Even if Dichter isn’t reappointed to the cabinet, he isn’t in a rush. He will keep using his current position and keep working the base.
Yaalon and Dichter have different approaches to politics. Time will tell who has the better future ahead of him. Historians can debate over who had the better past. Currently Dichter is making the most of the present.
Note: I am aware it is no longer the weekend, but the crazy week forced me to delay my piece to today.