Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog is poised to risk losing a passionate cohort of his party — the youth — if he succeeds in his push to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing governing coalition.
Young Labor members have come out strongly against Herzog’s negotiations with Netanyahu, staging a small protest outside Herzog’s Tel Aviv home on May 14 as part of a two-week public campaign to thwart the deal.
“Once the politicians give a cold shoulder to the public, it will be a problem for the next election,” said Uri Keidar, chairman of the Young Guard, which represents 10,000 young Labor members ages 17 to 36. (The voting age in Israel is 18.) “We promised people it is either us or Netanyahu. We didn’t say it is us and Netanyahu.”
While commentators say that Herzog wants to salvage his own flailing political career, Herzog himself points to opportunities that could arise in the coalition. Publicly, he is contemplating the move, but sources have told Haaretz that he is “determined” to do it, in part to explore promoting a regional peace process.
The chance to join the party is a “rare regional political opportunity that might never return,” Herzog told the Rabin forum, adding that Netanyahu has been prevented from keeping his “commitments” to the world and to the Palestinians because Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who sits on Netanyahu’s security Cabinet “strangles every initiative.”
In order to woo Herzog, Netanyahu might strip ministers from Bennett’s Jewish Home party, known in Hebrew as HaBayit Hayehudi, of their portfolios and hand them over to Labor Knesset members.
Young Laborites say they have built a political identity on opposing the ruling coalition and that Herzog risks blurring the lines between Labor and Likud by joining the government. But Herzog has dismissed their concerns, saying that Young Guard has historically been against a unity government.
Murmurs about the possibility of Herzog joining the government began almost as soon as Netanyahu’s Likud party won the March 2015 election. Netanyahu’s narrow coalition of 61 members — there are 120 Knesset members in total — makes governing difficult, as individual Knesset members can refuse to cooperate with the prime minister, stalling legislation. In order to expand his coalition, Netanyahu has reached out to Herzog, and more recently to Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party.
“There have been feelers from the first day after the elections,” Herzog said in a closed-door meeting of the Labor Party’s Rabin forum, according to the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. “I could have joined a hundred times already in the past year, but I didn’t because I said that there has to be a historic and dramatic change of direction.”
Herzog’s looming decision to join the government is seen as widely unpopular within the Labor Party. One of the loudest voices against a coalition deal is Stav Shaffir, the popular 31-year-old Knesset member whom the Labor Party recruited for her leadership in the 2011 social justice protests that called for equitable housing in Israel.
“I normally try to keep this discussion very quiet when it is between me and Herzog,” she told the Forward. But given the stakes, “I cannot just sit very quietly, I have to make my opinion heard and do everything in my power to influence and make this not happen.”
Shaffir said there is “no reason” for Labor to join the Likud coalition, pointing to Likud’s “ongoing failure in dealing with the diplomatic challenges of government.” “It’s not our job to go and make these failures prettier,” she said. “Our job is to be a very good alternative.”
If Herzog opts to enter the coalition, the 24 Knesset members in the Zionist Union faction — made up of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party — could opt not to join him. If two-thirds of the members remain outside the coalition, they could retain the name of the Labor Party. Shaffir said that she is not sure what she will do should Herzog join the coalition, but she said, “I can assure that I won’t vote with the coalition.”
On Facebook, Shaffir urged young Labor voters to become members of the party so that they can vote in the primaries to ensure that the party list reflects their values in the future.
But young Labor voters might just do the opposite and flee the party, said Gidi Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“I think that for the young people, the reaction will be to prefer to either go to vote for Meretz as a cleaner leftist alternative or maybe go to [Yair] Lapid [of the Yesh Atid party] as a centrist yet oppositional alternative,” he said.
According to Rahat, Labor already has a tenuous grip on young Israeli voters, who tend to be more extreme in their voting patterns, either voting far left or far right. Demographic trends in Israel do not favor the Labor Party as the two fastest-growing populations, Haredim and Arabs, vote for parties closely aligned with their own communities. What’s more, Labor’s reputation as an establishment party — and one that has been out of power for the past decade and a half — is a turnoff for young voters.
“There was a saying once: ‘When you hear an ambulance it’s either a Labor voter dying or a Likud voter coming into the world,’” Rahat said.
Labor’s ability to attract young people changed somewhat in the 2013 election, when Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, another leader from the 2011 social justice protests, ran and won on the Labor ticket. The Labor Party’s emphasis on social economic issues such as the ability of young people to afford apartments in Tel Aviv was inspired by the protest movement. Young people who do vote Labor tend to be more left than other members of the party, Keidar said.
Keidar worries that if Herzog joins the coalition, young Labor voters won’t just switch parties, but will also abandon voting altogether.
“I don’t want to be in a position where they are again discouraged by politics,” Keidar said.
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.