Analysis: The Labor Party and the invisible messiah

Why Sunday's party convention truly matters.

August 2, 2016 18:07
3 minute read.
Isaac Herzog

Isaac Herzog will remain party leader for the time being.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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It is easy to downplay decisions made at a convention of the Israeli Labor Party as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, or even worse, rearranging deck chairs on a nameless ship whose destination no one could care less about.

But Sunday's rowdy party convention could end up being remembered as the first step in the long, arduous process of presenting the most serious challenge in years to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

How can that be, you might ask? After all, the Labor Party is in poor shape, and it just voted to kick the can down the road, postpone their leadership race until July 2017, and enable current chairman Isaac Herzog to stay in power, at least until then.

The answer is that sometimes purposely not taking a step enables a giant leap at the right time.

That is exactly what Labor Party convention delegates did Sunday. Herzog declared victory after the vote, but it is very likely that many delegates who backed his proposal did not vote for it in order to support him.

Many of them were instead voting to enable the emergence of the Great Invisible Messiah with Military Experience - or GIMME for short.

The GIMME can have many possible names: Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former deputy IDF chief Moshe Kaplinsky, or Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, who is a retired brigadier general and former combat pilot.

Former IDF chiefs of staff and defense ministers Moshe Ya'alon and Ehud Barak are not the messiahs of the Labor Party. But they could end up working very closely with whoever will be chosen to chair it, joining forces to bring Netanyahu down.

As Labor secretary-general Hilik Bar wrote delegates ahead of the vote, waiting a year to hold the leadership race was important “to leave a door open to new forces and candidates who could run and take part in the party’s leadership.” Bar said what he wrote came from "healthy logic" and not actual conversations with any of the possible GIMMEs.

"The entrance of people like Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz would be a significant contribution to the political sphere," former defense minister and Labor leader Amir Peretz said Tuesday. He called on "everyone for whom the state is dear" to enter the race, saying that "the first test of leadership is willingness to sacrifice yourself by entering politics."

The first GIMME to respond publicly to the Labor's decision was Huldai. He admitted he was "flirting with the idea of running for Labor leader," because the party was not giving hope to the people of Israel and not providing an alternative.

But Huldai will not make a decision about whether to run until he has to, and neither will any of the other GIMMEs. In an era when the luster of a new politician fades fast, it is important to keep them wrapped safely in their packaging until the last possible moment.

The GIMMEs are also waiting to see what will happen with a series of probes of Netanyahu and his current and former associates. The more vulnerable the prime minister is, the more likely they are to take a risk by entering the fray.

They also want to see what will happen with other political developments, such as which parties will run together, and what will be the fate of players like Yesh Atid, Kulanu, and Netanyahu's former number two in Likud, Gideon Sa'ar.  Perhaps a new political bloc can be built that can include Labor or, under the right circumstances, even be led by it.

Those developments will not be decided in the weeks months or months ahead. But they might be in a year - exactly when Labor will decide its leader.

If one of the GIMMEs takes the plunge then, people could look back at Sunday's Labor convention and understand how important it was.

We might even recall some day that at that rowdy convention, a historic development set sail.

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