Why keep an eye on Labor’s vote?

As the Labor Party emerges as the most likely alternative party to form a government in the next general elections, the 'Post' takes a closer look at the challenges and changes it faces.

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog casts his ballot in the primary (photo credit: COURTESY LABOR-HATNUA)
Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog casts his ballot in the primary
In the race to head the Labor Party, all the clichés have been used, countless times. They are just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. They have more candidates to lead the party than voters. It is just as exciting as watching paint dry. If a party holds an election in a forest and no one pays attention, did it make a sound? Labor deserves such cynicism, after falling from the 24 Knesset seats it won two years ago as part of the Zionist Union to nine seats in the polls. Nine is also the number of candidates running in the July 4 leadership election, which has already been postponed twice.
But the candidates have not cooperated with those peddling the conventional wisdom that Labor is irrelevant and boring. If anything, they have made the election one of the most fun and action-packed primaries in recent memory.
Is that news for you? Well, start paying attention.
The election is only days away, and it will go down to the wire.
As a service to Jerusalem Post readers, here are the top 10 (yes, there are even more) reasons why the election actually matters.
1. No arithmetic alternative
Labor is the only existing party other than the Likud that could possibly form a government after the next general election.
Therefore, chances are pretty good that whoever wins this race will be the primary competition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – or whoever the Likud replaces him with, if he has to quit due to criminal investigations – in the next general election.
Why not Yesh Atid? Pure mathematics.
Shas and United Torah Judaism would never consider entering a government led by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, because they incorrectly consider him antireligious. Bayit Yehudi would not join, because its leaders consider Yesh Atid too left-wing. Lapid has ruled out forming a government with Meretz or the Joint List.
The Likud has not played second fiddle in a government since the rotation between Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres in the 1980s. Seeing how entering governments led by other parties has caused great damage to Labor, the Likud’s strategy has been proven correct. Netanyahu would never take the Likud into a government he does not head. Former minister Gideon Sa’ar and other potential Netanyahu successors have ruled out that possibility as well.
That leaves Yesh Atid, Labor, Kulanu and Yisrael Beytenu, which would together probably win about 50 seats, not nearly enough. Once this is clear to centrist voters, they will likely shift back from Yesh Atid to Labor.
2. Israel is not France
A new party is not going to come from out of nowhere and win a large majority in the parliament, as happened with French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche.
No party has ever won a majority in Israel. It took a sitting prime minister in Ariel Sharon to form a new ruling party in Kadima, and Netanyahu is unlikely to leave the Likud.
Israelis are frustrated with their existing parties, but they are not going to march en masse to say oui to a new one, even if it is formidable.
So Israel is stuck with the Likud and Labor – yes, Labor.
3. Mega-party pipe dream
The largest party in Israel is the anti-Bibi party.
The only question is how many people will head it.
Assuming again that the criminal investigations do not bring him down, there will be a serious effort to unite multiple parties in an effort to slay the Netanyahu dragon.
Since Lapid will refuse to cooperate with this effort, that leaves whoever heads Labor to try to build a mega bloc. Incumbent Labor head Isaac Herzog managed to join together with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua last time.
It will take a much bigger bloc to win the next election. All of the Labor leadership candidates have said they intend to try to do that.
4. The Ehud Barak effect
Every time Ehud Barak speaks – and he seems to lecture or interview somewhere every day now – he gives a more suggestive answer about whether he intends to embark on a political comeback.
Speaking to Commanders for Israel’s Security Monday night, Barak said he “is not entering political activity in any of the parties at this stage.” But he added that “in politics, there are two rules: one, that there are no rules; and two, that timing is everything.”
The moment Labor elects a leader, speculation will begin on whether he will clear the way for Barak. The former prime minister and Labor leader chose not to run in the primary, believing that he could be handed the chairmanship later on, if whoever does win flounders in the polls.
Fellow former Labor leader Amir Peretz detests Barak. But any other candidate could face serious pressure to stand aside and enable a run by Barak or perhaps another former IDF chief such as Gabi Ashkenazi or Benny Gantz.
5. Digging in the dirt
The same day that a top pundit called the Labor race too boring for his media outlet, six Labor candidates debated in Tel Aviv. MK Erel Margalit surprised former environmental protection minister Avi Gabbay in a section of the debate in which each candidate could ask a question of one other candidate.
When he asked Gabbay if he has ever voted Likud and he responded “Never,” Margalit played a video on his phone of Channel 2 anchor Dana Weiss asking Gabbay the same question in September 2015, to which he answered “Yes.” Gabbay later released a statement saying he was confused because he voted for Sharon when he thought he was leading Kadima but in fact was still with the Likud.
Margalit has dished out other dirt on Gabbay, including alleging that he had been investigated by the Israel Securities Authority – a charge proven incorrect. Herzog and Peretz have also endured their share of negative campaigning.
This race has been dirty – and dirty is a lot more dramatic and fun than sterile elections in other parties.
6. Finding a foreign minister?
If Herzog wins the leadership primary, speculation will start immediately that he will take the Zionist Union into Netanyahu’s government.
It doesn’t matter how critical he has been of the prime minister lately or how much he denies now that he would join.
Herzog was already caught lying when he denied negotiating joining Netanyahu’s government, so he will not be given the benefit of the doubt anymore, especially as he would be less encumbered after winning the primary.
Netanyahu wants Herzog, he believes he would be a good foreign minister, and that job would be the pinnacle achievement of Herzog’s career. Seeing whether he could resist temptation could be interesting to watch in the aftermath of a Herzog victory.
Herzog is fighting to become the first Labor leader to get reelected since its primary system was instituted.
He got good press this week from the leaking of Likud ads attacking him that the Likud decided not to use. He ended up being compared to former prime minister and Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin, who also faced posters that made him look bad.
That comparison could only help him in this race.
7. The Erel of the opposition
Netanyahu has undoubtedly enjoyed having an opposition leader who no longer hides the fact that he desired to be his foreign minister.
Even when Herzog talks tough, it’s hard not to recall him promising during the general election to “keep Netanyahu united,” when he intended to say Jerusalem.
The strongest possible opposition leader is Margalit, who has proven himself willing and able to get nasty, dig for dirt, and even swear. He traveled to Germany and signed up tens of thousands of people to a petition in an effort to get Netanyahu prosecuted in the Submarine Affair, known by the police as File 3000.
The Columbia University-educated Margalit, who is the Knesset’s richest MK and possibly Israel’s most successful venture capitalist (not bad for a kid born on a kibbutz), also has money at his disposal that would be unlimited, were it not for those annoying things that get in the way of elections called laws.
A Margalit victory could make Israeli politics much more fun, day in and day out.
8. Upset by the outsider
While if Herzog or Peretz wins, the election would not make waves, imagine what would happen if a fresh face like Gabbay takes over the Labor Party.
He just joined the party a few months ago, after serving as a minister in Netanyahu’s government in Kulanu. He quit to protest Netanyahu’s treatment of former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, and how well he fits in Labor remains to be seen.
But if he wins, the party will be remade in the image of the rags-toriches, self-made millionaire. The party’s focus would return to socioeconomic issues.
Because Gabbay is not an MK, he would not be opposition leader in the Knesset. Instead, he would devote his time and energy to preparing the party to confront Netanyahu in the next general election.
9. More for The Mustache?
Peretz has been one of the most colorful figures in Israeli politics since his 1983 election as mayor of Sderot. He has bounced between Labor and other parties, but always seems to come back to the forefront.
If he wins, Netanyahu will face veteran leadership with both security and socioeconomic credibility.
While Peretz will never recover from the picture of him raising closed binoculars, no one can take away from him that he authorized purchasing and implementing the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Internal polls have shown Peretz perhaps winning the most votes in the first round of voting. But if that happens, all the other candidates, plus probably MK Shelly Yacimovich, could gang up on him to dramatically ensure his defeat.
10. History is heavy
Labor remains the party of David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and Golda Meir. Their successor is to be selected on July 4, so the weight on the shoulders of the voters must be felt. With history on its side, Labor cannot be counted out or eulogized, nor should its party primary be ignored.