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Tzipi Livni’s gambit and the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’

Labor and Yesh Atid turned down a crucial offer to cooperate and beat Netanyahu

A week ago on national TV, Tzipi Livni called on Labor Party head, Shelly Yachimovich and Yesh Atid Chair Yair Lapid to meet to discuss creating a common bloc for the remainder of the elections and beyond. It was a bold move that ran counter to the conventional wisdom in the jungle of “take-no-prisoners” Israeli politics. So far it has not succeeded and may actually cost Livni’s Hatnuah party some Knesset seats. But it was the right thing for the country and it’s important that voters understand why.

The meeting between the three took place early last week around midnight at the home of Lapid’s mother and it did not go well. Tzipi’s proposal was simple: Let’s make a joint call to the Israeli public that wants to replace the Netanyahu administration to vote for one of our three centrist parties. Vote for whichever one us you prefer – but vote! On our part, we’ll commit to working together as a single bloc after the elections. If we go into opposition, it will be together – and if we join a government it will be together. With forty plus votes between us, we can cobble together a force that can either form the government or, as a joint opposition, ensure that an extremist Netanyahu government will be short-lived. As to who will “head” the team – let’s put egos aside for now and work together, letting the election results drive the actual hierarchy between us.

The logic behind her call for cooperation was this: Public opinion surveys suggest that some 30 to 40 percent of voters may not come out at all to vote these elections. Most of these are identified with the center/left perspective. Discouraged by polls that predict an inevitable victory by Netanyahu they are numbed and alienated. A joint call from the leaders of the large center bloc saying: “we are going to change this government together, but we need your help” could infuse energy and hope into the present defeatist dynamics. It could mobilize an Israeli public that is increasingly nervous about a right-wing extremist government and unhappy with the present economic situation. It would be refreshing to hear politicians working together and give centrist voters a more promising context for engagement.

Unfortunately, Yachimovich and Lapid did not see it that way. Given sagging polls, Yachimovich recently changed her previous inclination to join a Netanyahu government, and now says she is committed to being in the opposition no matter what. Lapid’s inclination has always been the opposite: he is resigned to a Netanyahu victory and is focused on negotiations to join the coalition. Neither wants to join forces to make their scenario more effective. After the meeting, sensing that they could use the overture to their advantage, the two issued a joint press release with a vicious personal attack on Livni, charging that the whole initiative was a spin on Livni’s part to gain attention.

The rejection of a joint front should be a disappointment to an Israeli public increasingly aware of just how right-wing and Orthodox a new Netanyahu government is going to be. They can hardly imagine what it will mean in terms of lost peace prospects, international isolation, human rights and quality of life.

In a sense, the whole episode constituted a classic case of a prisoner’s dilemma: This well-known paradigm from academic game theory works like this: Two prisoners, suspected of having jointly committed a crime, are interrogated separately by police. They are kept separate from one another with no means of communication. The police don’t have sufficient evidence to convict them on the main charge, so they make the following offer: If one suspect will testify against his partner, he will go free and his partner will get three years in prison. But if both prisoners testify against each other, both will be sentenced to two years in jail. The optimal outcome occurs when both refuse to betray one another. Then they both go free. But quite often, prisoners prefer personal interests or suspect the other will do the same, choose the less ‘optimal route’ and end up turning on their partners.

That’s what happened in the recent centrist discussions. If all candidates had appeared unified in a last push press conference, showing that they are willing to overcome their personal differences in order to prevent the likely disaster of a far-right Netanyahu government, it could have been a critical “tipping point.” The weekend polls show the gap between a center/left bloc and the right-wing narrowing for the first time. The disillusioned public might have gotten the shot in the arm it needs to get engaged and change the direction of the elections. Instead, they saw two parties try to maximize their own influence in the coming election by taking a cheap shot at the third party, which left itself vulnerable by suggesting that they all “do the right thing” in concert.

Livni has not changed her position nor pulled the offer from the table. There should be a bloc that works together on the Center/Left to bring about a new government. In the 2009 elections, it didn’t happen. The Labor party, quietly cut a deal with Likud soon after the results were in to sit in Netanyahu’s government, refusing to join a Livni-led coalition. For those concerned about peace in the region and social justice, Labor’s position then was a cynical, duplicitous and disastrous step which ultimately led to Barak’s political demise.

It should be different this time. Hopefully, the public will have time to consider the situation this week and vote for the party that put national interests ahead of squabbling and the narrow calculations that Yachimovich and Lapid chose. These elections are no ordinary elections. The damage to Israel’s future in terms of reaching a two-state solution may be irreversible. The implications for increasing gaps in income, religious coercion and unfair military conscription are grave. These are times that call for an extraordinary political leap of faith and cooperation. It still is not too late.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.