Isaac Herzog, Labor’s new leader, is doing everything he can to create, exploit, and widen perceived fissures in the governing coalition. Can Herzog succeed where others have failed?

This is the second article in a series on Isaac Herzog. See also Herzog Rising.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) involves pumping fluids into the ground, under pressure, to crack rocks and expand fissures in the rock that release oil and natural gas deposits for harvesting. It bears a striking resemblance to the role of an opposition leader in a multi-party democracy, a role for which Isaac Herzog seems remarkably well suited. He will face several challenges in the process, as the coalition may be a lot more stable than it looks.

Isaac Herzog, Labor Party Leader

Isaac Herzog, Labor Party Leader

Effective Opposition

I want to begin this section by apologizing for using terminology that may seem alien to my American audience. In the United States we are unfamiliar with terms like “effective opposition”. In our two-party system both parties “oppose” each other in general ways, but rarely mount any real opposition. After all, the opposition party needs to leave room in their rhetoric to endorse the same policies of the governing party once the opposition is in power. Of course, opposition isn’t all that important in a Presidential system, where the President will serve out his term anyway. The presidency is, after all, little more than an elective monarchy with a fixed term of office. In a multi-party coalition, effective opposition can bring down governments and inaugurate new ones.

Since he began his tenure as Labor Party chair and Opposition Leader November last, Herzog has caused Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government several headaches. The opposition boycotted the passage of several electoral reforms that were ratified in mid-March, a gutsy and unprecedented move. When the peace process failed, Herzog drove home the point that Bibi is perceived as being lukewarm in his support for the process. Yair Lapid, whose center-left Yesh Atid Party ran on a platform that included resumption of the stalled peace process, was embarrassed. Lapid, already down significantly in the polls, is now on the defensive trying to justify his continued participation in the coalition. Tzipi Livni was also elected on a pro-peace platform and has likewise chosen to remain in the coalition.

By taking on his center-left opponents in light of his major rightwing opponent, Herzog is slowly dividing the center-left from the right. He is applying pressure to the coalition in its several cracks and fissures. This coalition fracking will have two effects: first, it will weaken the coalition and make it more difficult for Bibi to make decisions that draw farther to the right. Second, none of it is lost on an Israeli public that is watching attentively. Will voters cast off their perception of Labor as a third place finisher, a lion of an older political age that has roared its last, and consider anew? Perhaps they will decide that Labor does have what it takes to lead Israel.

The recent kidnapping in the West Bank (Shomron and Yehudah) will strengthen nationalist feelings, but it will also offer Herzog an opportunity to criticize the effectiveness of the government’s response to the crisis.

Presidential Coup

During this year’s Presidential election, (see also my series on the Israeli Presidency) Herzog worked closely with Livni at the last minute to promote Meir Sheetrit’s candidacy. After Labor’s Ben-Eliezer departed the race over an investigation into his finances, it was assumed that Dalia Itzik, a former Kadima MK, would be the runoff candidate against Likud’s Ruby Rivlin. Instead, Sheetrit came in with a strong second place finish in the first round. So much so, that Likud and coalition whips had to go to work fast in the last minute before the second vote to ensure a majority vote for their candidate. Coalition Chairman Ze’ev Elkin made the shocking statement that if Sheetrit had managed to win the election, the government would have fallen. Is Herzog really that close to bringing down Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government?

While this may be hyperbole the fact remains that Herzog formed successful ad hoc alliances with party leaders within and without the coalition to promote a particular candidate who made a strong showing. At one point Rivlin even congratulated Sheetrit on his coming victory. Rivlin ended up beating Sheetrit 63-53.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Israeli Presidential Election was that many members of the Haredi parties, (Shas and UTJ) who together hold some 18 seats in the Knesset, sided with Herzog in voting for Sheetrit. Is this a sign of things to come? If Labor could win enough seats in the next election to form a government, say at least 25, the Haredi parties would be powerful allies. In fact, Labor’s last government under Ehud Barak from 1999 through 2001 included Shas, a Sephardic Orthodox Party.

Coalition Strength

Despite Herzog’s successes, the current coalition remains strong. Perhaps the greatest reason for this strength is the spectre of new elections. Recent polls show a separated Likud and Yisrael Beteinu (Israel is Our Home) earning about 40 and 15 seats respectively. Livni’s Hatnuah Party (the Movement) would pick up a few seats, and Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party (There Is a Future) would stand to lose a substantial number of seats. Such elections could, under the right circumstances rocket Labor back to second place, but offer little or no chance of a first place finish or government led by Labor. Thus, such an election would prove an exercise in futility that would lead to a stronger right leaning government. In the absence of a major national crisis, Labor cannot win elections now. Given time, Labor can build its growing momentum toward a future victory.

Elections for the 20th Knesset are scheduled for 2017. If Herzog can continue his “fracking” campaign and open up more fissures in the coalition, divide its parties and leaders, paint the center-left as tools of the right, and offer an alternative vision of a center-left Labor government…victory could be within reach. That is, if Herzog can retain Labor’s hot seat leadership portfolio.