Netanyahu vs. Israel's WASPs: The Battle for Zionism

The upcoming election will be crucial for defining Israel's future.

Imagine that instead of competing for the highest office in the land as representatives of two rival political parties, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush decide to band together and run on the same ticket and a common platform. That would not make a lot of sense if you assume that the Clintons and Bushes are located in opposite sides of the political and ideological spectrum, but may seem less of a fantasy (or a nightmare) if you consider that the scions of the two famous political families share a certain aversion to radical challenges to the status-quo and tend to schmooze with the same players in Wall Street and in other centers of political and economic power in this country.

Only a few years ago, the notion of Isaac Herzog, the leader of Israel's Labor Party, and Tzipi Livni, a former high-ranking member of the Likud Party, forging a political alliance would have been dismissed as the stuff of Sci-Fi novels. The political marriage between these two politicians would have been particularly inconceivable to members of their respective families, who have represented two opposing wings of the Zionist movement and later of the Israeli political system.

The 54-year-old Herzog or "Buji" as he is known, belongs to one of the country's most prominent families. His father, General Chaim Herzog, was Israel’s sixth president. His uncle, Abba Eban, is a legendary Israeli statesman. Both men were also leading figures in the Israeli Labor Movement.

Livni, 58, who like Herzog was born in Tel Aviv, is the daughter of Eitan Livni, one of the leaders of Menachem Begin's right-wing Irgun underground that fought British rule in Palestine and later founded the Herut Party, which became the nucleus of the Likud movement.

Livni, who joined Likud after serving for several years in the Mossad, and Herzog, a lawyer who was a military intelligence officer, have been affiliated with centrist wing of their respective parties. And Livni, after rejecting the Likud's Greater Israel vision and embracing the two-state solution, left the Likud Party to form new moderate political parties with pro-peace platforms.

At the same time, Herzog is considered more of a hawk than a dove when it comes to national security issues, and rejects the post-Zionist vision common to some members of the Israeli left today. In an American political context, Livni would be an anti-Tea Party Republican while Herzog would be a proud Clintonite; not a member of the progressive wing.

During a ceremony last December that marked the formation of the alliance between Herzog and Livni in the form of the new Zionist Camp grouping, the two made it clear that their main target was Likud leader and current Prime Minister Benjamin  ("Bibi") Netanyahu. Or, as Livni put it, “to replace this bad government in the State of Israel."

But the establishment of the Zionist Camp reflected more than just a new attempt to oust the Likud Party and "Bibi" from power. It also represents an effort by the children and grandchildren of the mostly European and secular Zionists who founded the State of Israel, which has seemed to erode in recent years in the face of the demographic changes in the country.

In recent decades, right-wing and religious political parties in Israel have been boosted by shifting demographic trends; most notably, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and the growing ultra-Orthodox population. (And interestingly enough, the majority of the French-Jewish immigrants who are arriving in Israel these days tend to favor Likud and other right-wing parties).

Those same parties, including the Likud, had already benefited from the support of earlier immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time, the eroding demographic power of what is known as the "white tribe”— Israel's WASPs, if you will— represented by Herzog, Livni, and Yair Lapid, the head of the reformist Yesh Atid Party and the son of another famous Israeli politician, has led to growing losses in recent elections among the centrist and left-leaning political parties.

In a way, Livni and Herzog recognize that, not unlike the Republicans in the United States, they are now in the midst of a crucial electoral rearguard fight against the political parties who resist the secular and liberal Zionist ethos and who benefit from the demographic changes.

In that context, the Likud that was not long ago regarded as a conservative political movement akin to the European Christian-Democrats or U.S. Republicans has gradually been separating from its secular and liberal roots and becoming more of a nationalist and populist political party. It has embraced intransigent positions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and worked together with the new religious-nationalist party, Habayit Hayehudi ("The Jewish Home") Party, to pass legislation that would accentuate Israel's identity as an exclusive Jewish State, raising discrimination concerns among non-Jewish citizens.

At the same time, the relatively high birth-rate among Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs plays into the hands of the right-wing bloc over the long term. While the Ultra-Orthodox parties tend to prefer joining coalitions led by the Likud and its partners, the Zionist Camp is precluded from forming any such coalitions with the anti-Zionist Arab parties. So even if the newly unified Arab parties win around 12 seats the 120-member Knesset (Parliament), as is expected, Herzog and Livni are not likely to ask the Arabs to join their coalition.