The Three Men Who Could Save Israel's Center-Left

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Why Israel's next elections will be more important than this one

RTXW5J6-615.jpgIsrael's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) hugs Meir Dagan on January 2, 2011 (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

In the lead-up to the 2009 Israeli elections, I mused to a high-ranking Israeli official that Israel seemed to be picking from the same pool of over-the-hill recycled politicians, and perhaps what they needed was a truly fresh face from outside the political or security class. "What Israel needs is a Barack Obama," I said. "It would never happen," he shot back to me. The stakes are too high in their part of the world, he argued. Israelis would never take a chance on a newcomer, only willing to trust someone with an established security record.

The surprising second-place finish of former newscaster Yair Lapid's centrist party is probably the closest Israel has come in recent years to an Obama-style newcomer. But it won't be enough to oust the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud-Beiteinu coalition received the most votes and will likely be asked to form the next government.

The center-left may get a rematch sooner rather than later: As Michael Koplow convincingly argued in The Atlantic yesterday, regardless of whether Netanyahu turns left or right to form his coalition, his government is unlikely to last very long. The problem is that the parties as they stand now have little chance of presenting a viable alternative to Netanyahu. Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich (the Labor party leader, also a former journalist) are not seen as realistic candidates to be prime minister; in this election, they largely coasted off of issues related to the 2011 economic protests in Israel, but had little, if anything, to say on broader issues of peace and security. "A TV anchor can't be prime minister; it just doesn't work in Israel," said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. "They have to sit in a cabinet meeting, hear what a general says."

The center and left are largely bereft of credible leaders on these issues. This explains the desperate buzz from many on the center-left surrounding former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's possible re-entry into politics, despite his severe mismanagement of the Lebanon war and an ongoing investigation into his alleged corruption. Their last hope, Tzipi Livni, massively underperformed in this week's contest. Lacking a leader with real gravitas and authority on these issues with proven leadership experience, the center-left may have hit its ceiling in this election.

But all that could change in the next election -- which could happen in the next year or two. By then, three of Israel's best-known security officials will likely be eligible to run for public office (after a legally mandated "cooling off" period of three years): Meir Dagan, Yuval Diskin, and Gabi Ashkenazi. All three, to different extents, have been public Netanyahu critics, and would likely join center or left-wing parties. Their presence on any ticket could finally provide the center-left with its Netanyahu alternative.

All three, to different extents, have been public Netanyahu critics, and would likely join center or left-wing parties. Their presence on any ticket could finally provide the center-left with its Netanyahu alternative.

Dagan is the most recent head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, and its second longest-serving chief in Israel's history. He is no progressive; former Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon once said of him, "Dagan's specialty is separating an Arab from his head." Even Netanyahu lauded him at his retirement reception: "Some people have a knife between their teeth," he reportedly said. "Meir has a rocket-propelled grenade between his teeth." The lore of his exploits is so widespread that Israel's Channel 2 named him the country's "Man of the Year" in 2008.

But within Netanyahu's government, Dagan was one of the leading opponents of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. Since leaving office, he has become of Netanyahu's most vocal critics -- and as described by The New Yorker's David Remnick, "arguably the most authoritative." In his first public comments since leaving office, he declared that "an aerial attack against Iran's nuclear reactors would be foolish," adding that "anyone attacking Iran needs to understand that it could start a regional war which will include missile fire from Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon." He has relentlessly continued to attack Netanyahu in interviews and public appearances.

Having retired in May 2010, Dagan is technically eligible to run later this year. He has not explicitly mentioned his intention to run for office, though he did hint to Remnick that "you always have to pay attention to your internal moral compass and ask the right questions." It is unlikely Dagan would join one of the left-wing parties -- as he himself told Remnick, "Don't be mistaken, I am not a liberal by point of view." But his role as Netanyahu's most prominent critic would make him a natural fit to lead or join one of the centrist parties or start his own. That said, his declining health ( he recently returned from a liver transplant in Belarus ) makes his political future uncertain.

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Zvika Krieger is a former editor and writer at The New Republic and a former correspondent for Newsweek based in Egypt and Lebanon, covering most of the Arab world. More

Krieger has received fellowships to study topics including the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, the Kifaya reform movement in Egypt, public health in Bombay slums, religious identity in Kashmir, historical memory in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, and the role of religion in Lebanese politics. He has also reported from such places as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Libya, North Ireland, Sri Lanka, Japan, and Korea. His work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Slate, New York, Arab Reform Bulletin, New Stateman, Chronicle of Higher Education, Daily Star (Lebanon), Cairo Magazine, Jerusalem Post, Christian Science Monitor, and various other publications, and he has appeared as a Middle East analyst on NBC News, CNN, Fox News, and Air America. His writings have earned him awards from the Overseas Press Club, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. He is a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He has a bachelor's degree in Middle East Studies from Yale University and studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

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