Finally, Israel has an opposition: Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah party

With all due respect to Meretz and Hadash … 

Until yesterday, the occupation was not an issue in the Israeli election campaign; the only parties running against it were Meretz and the non-Zionist, Arab or largely Arab slates, all of which are marginal to the country’s politics. But with Amir Peretz’s departure from the Labor Party for Hatnuah (The Movement), where he will be No. 3 after Tzipi Livni and Amram Mitzna, there is now a mainstream party with a critical mass of leadership material at the top whose focus is on ending the conflict with the Palestinians, and whose message is that it’s possible – that Israel has a partner for peace in Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

This is not to say Hatnuah could lead a left-center or even left-center-Arab bloc to defeat Netanyahu and the right-religious bloc in the January 22 elections. Bibi and Likud Beiteinu are going to lead the next government; that, as Noam Sheizaf wrote, is as certain as anything can be.

But what Hatnuah does is give Israel what it has needed and lacked like nothing else for these last several years: an opposition.  A pro-peace opposition that can push back against the inexorably rightward direction the country’s been taking. One that can put some other ideas in the air, that can suggest other future possibilities besides dictatorship and war. And finally, one that is big enough and whose leaders are prominent enough in the eyes of the general public to have an impact – and to be seen as a credible contender for power in the years ahead.

Hatnuah gives Israel a mainstream liberal camp, something that every Western democracy has, but which Israel hasn’t had since 2006. In that year the post-disengagement rocketing from Gaza convinced the public that the conflict was insoluble, that the best Israel could do was “manage” it, which has come to mean “cutting the grass” – Operation Whatever – every two or three years.

Since 2006, the National Camp has ruled exclusively; Israel has effectively become a one-party country, the party of dictatorship and war, with the only debate being between right and further right. By nature, this is a dynamic that keeps moving in one direction only. The current election campaign marked a giant leap rightward: Likud joined up with Yisrael Beiteinu, while both of the viable mainstream “opposition” parties – Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid – lined up squarely behind the status quo in the occupied territories and sucked up to the settlers. These parties are not an opposition, and not “center-left,” either – they are part of that one big party and can’t wait to join Netanyahu and Lieberman’s next government.

So now comes Hatnuah. Like most everyone else, I have heavy doubts about Tzipi Livni as a political leader. But she still has national leadership stature (if not nearly as much as before), she was a serious, trusted peace negotiator opposite the PA as foreign minister, and she started Hatnuah (less than two weeks ago) on one issue: reviving the peace process. She backed up her words by choosing as her No. 2 Mitzna, who has proven his commitment to peace since his army days 30 years ago when he defied Sharon in the Lebanon War. Finally, she solidified the party by bringing in Peretz, who, as mayor of Sderot in the 80s, organized peace festivals in the Negev and used to go to Gaza to meet with Fatah elder statesman Haider Abdel Shafi – crazy, impossible stuff for that time and place. And his views haven’t changed.

But I have doubts about Peretz, too. He was a lousy Labor Party leader; at one point in the coalition wrangling he threatened to join forces with super-right-wing National Union. As defense minister in the Second Lebanon War, he ranted that “Hassan Nasrallah will remember the name Amir Peretz!” Like Livni, he has tremendous ambition, and there’s no guarantee it won’t get in the way of his political principles (which are clearer and stronger than Livni’s). But while ambition no doubt figured strongly in his decision to leave Labor, ideology did too;  one of the main, if not the main, reasons for his feud with Yacimovich was over her determined shift to the right.

What worries me the most about Hatnuah is Livni’s refusal to rule out joining the next prospective right-wing government; she claims she doesn’t have to prove herself on that score after turning down continual opportunities to be Netanyahu’s No. 2, and even forgoing a chance at being prime minister because she wouldn’t pay the ultra-Orthodox Shas party’s price. But until she declares flatly that her party won’t join a right-wing-led government, there’s a possibility it will.

Another obvious worry is that Livni, as leader of Kadima for the first three years of the Netanyahu government, was about the weakest opposition leader imaginable. She was a dishrag when she was awake at all. As leader of the opposition in the next Knesset, she would either have to change dramatically or let Peretz do the talking and shouting.

I have no illusions – Livni, Peretz and Mitzna are all politicians (the first two much more than the third). They have to appeal, more or less, to the center if Hatnuah is to become a major party, so I can’t rule out the possibility that when the time comes, they’ll sell out, too. (Mitzna never has, but that’s no guarantee for the future.)

For a leftist, then, voting for Hatnuah is a risk – more of a risk than voting for Meretz or Hadash. But I feel that these are the sorts of times when one has to take risks – when the chance of striking a real ideological blow against the empire is so vitally necessary that it’s worth taking the risk – a small one, but still a risk – that you will, God forbid, end up striking a blow for it.

Something big and new happened yesterday: For the first time in a long time, we have a chance to make the bastards sweat. With all due respect to Meretz and Hadash, the only hope in this election on the Israel-Palestine front – pending developments, of course – is Hatnuah.

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