Saturday, May 5, 2012

Israel's Elections - The Yachimovitch Factor

In the next round of Israeli elections, the second place finisher is likely to be a major centrist party led by a woman who is respected by the left.

No, not Tzipi Livni.  Rather, Shelly Yachimovitch, the Labor party's newly-elected leader, will likely play a critical role in the elections scheduled for September 4, 2012.  A poll last week predicted that the Labor party would garner 18 seats out of a total 120.   Today, Yachimovitch attacked Prime Minister Netanyahu's Iran policy, calling it a "mistake" and supporting the U.S. position of sanctions and diplomacy first and foremost.  As Yachimovitch moves herself more into the public eye (at which she should be adept given her background as a journalist), the Labor party stands only to gain after its dismal performance in the 2009 elections.

However, the real wildcard is not what happens in the elections but what happens the day after.  Given the conservative mood of the Israeli public, Labor is not likely to win a plurality of seats, but it will likely take seats currently held by the centrist Kadima party.  If Labor wins second place, Yachimovitch will have to make a critical choice whether to align with the winning party (which polls predict to be Likud), or to be Leader of the Opposition.

Aligning with the coalition could allow Yachimovitch significant influence over Israeli policy.  Given that Yachimovitch, while leftist, is pragmatic as well, this outcome is certainly a possibility.  However, the result of the political compromises required for Labor to join the coalition might only further alienate the party base.  This could open opportunities for Kadima and Yair Lapid's new party Yesh Atid.  Additionally, Netanyahu may be wary of bringing in Labor if he can cut a deal with more center and right-wing parties.  He may not offer Labor a spot in the next government at all.

Yachimovitch's other possible choice would be to become Leader of the Opposition.  Playing defense would certainly not be a new position for either the Labor party or Yachimovitch herself at a time when the Israeli public is leaning conservative.  Additionally, the reshuffling of Prime Minister Netanyahu's cabinet indicates rifts between Likud and the further right Yisrael Beiteinu party, particularly on the issue of settlements.  Yachimovitch might be able to use a position as Leader of the Opposition to wedge between the two parties and create a new round of elections in a few years in which more centrist or leftist parties would have an opportunity.

However, the Israeli public might resent the Labor party playing a wedge role if it agrees with the policies of the Netanyahu government.  Additionally, the leader of the opposition, as Tzipi Livni's tenure demonstrates, has only a small policy effect.  Beyond hastening the demise of the Likud/Yisrael Beiteinu coalition, it is unclear that a Leader of the Opposition Yachimovitch would advance any real agenda.

One major factor that will affect Yachimovitch's ultimate decision is her performance in the campaign this summer.  To date, Yachimovitch has not been a serious national candidate for office and Netanyahu has ignored her.  Once ignoring is no longer an option however, he will go on the offensive.  How Yachimovitch responds to these attacks will determine the number of seats the Labor party gains in September, and whether her optimal strategy will be to work from the inside of the government, or push from the outside.  

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