A quarter-century ago Tony Blair was first elected prime minister, his victory credited to the success of the New Labour modernization project, which rid Britain’s traditional working-class party of surplus socialist and trade union baggage, facilitating a landslide majority.
Today, there is another new Labor Party – in Israel. Distancing itself from its pioneer youth movement, kibbutz and Histadrut Labor Federation roots, Labor is determined to connect with a new generation of voters by stressing a progressive social democratic agenda. Yet, while Blair’s New Labour won three consecutive UK elections, so far Israel’s new Labor has had no parallel success.
Labor’s current leader, Transport Minister Merav Michaeli, is praised for rescuing the party from political oblivion, winning seven Knesset seats and facilitating Labor’s participation in the Bennett-Lapid coalition. However, this success is a far cry from the old days of Labor hegemony from 1948 to 1977 when the party furnished all of Israel’s first five prime ministers: David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.
I experienced old Israeli Labor firsthand, living in the 1980s on Kibbutz Tel Katzir for seven years. Founded in 1949 by Israeli-born youth movement graduates, Tel Katzir was strategically situated next to two of Israel’s borders – at the foot of the Golan Heights and near the Yarmuk River that separates Israel from Jordan.
According to the 1949 Israel-Syria Armistice, Syrian forces withdrew from the parts of Mandatory Palestine where they remained at the end of Israel’s War of Independence. Although clearly on the Israeli side of the international frontier, Syria declared these evacuated areas to be no-man’s land. Israel saw the same areas as its territory demilitarized under the armistice, and established Tel Katzir as a “facts-on-the-ground” demonstration of sovereignty.
Not surprisingly, the kibbutz was the focus of multiple violent incidents, some even discussed at the UN Security Council. Tel Katzir’s old-timers tell stories about plowing the fields in armored tractors, the farmers needing protection from Syrian fire.
The kibbutz children’s houses were all connected to reinforced concrete tunnels making it safe and quick to reach a bomb shelter. In periods of security tension, the children routinely slept in those shelters.
Following Israel’s capture of the Golan Heights in 1967, and King Hussein’s Black September expulsion of the Palestinian fedayeen from Jordan in 1970, the direct security threat facing Tel Katzir largely dissipated, but the kibbutz always remained proud of its frontline past.
Not the foreign-born socialist idealogues of other kibbutzim, the down-to-earth sabra pragmatists of Tel Katzir chose the pioneering egalitarian lifestyle of a border kibbutz over the alternatives. Many gave up personal advancement in order to further what they believed to be the national good.
For them, life in a collective settlement was the manifestation of the Labor Zionist code they embraced, and, naturally enough, in election after election they overwhelmingly voted for the Labor Party.
FAST FORWARD: In the 2021 elections, Tel Katzir showed that it was no longer in Labor’s pocket. Yesh Atid got more votes than any other party, receiving 28.32% support. Labor came in second place with 24.78%, Blue and White third with 13.27% and Likud fourth with 8.85% (this number may disproportionately represent the non-kibbutznik residents of Tel Katzir’s private housing development).
A generation ago, Labor lost Israel’s urban working class. Across numerous Northern and Negev blue-collar communities, Labor’s vote is embarrassingly miniscule, hovering around a single percentage point (Dimona 1.56%, Ofakim 1.16%, and Beit She’an 0.89%).
Labor now only receives 25.2% support in the kibbutz movement, and less still in the formerly solidly Labor moshavim (Nahalal 19.21%, Kfar Malal 16.59%, and Avigdor 12.55%). The party’s rural base is shrinking too, with Labor increasingly condemned to compete with Yesh Atid and Meretz over well-off, educated, urban liberal voters.
The last Labor leader to be elected prime minister was Ehud Barak in 1999 (his term in office lasting less than two years). Superficially at least, Barak, the kibbutz-born general, was the embodiment of old Labor. Even his later purchased up-market Tel Aviv residence is seemingly historically consistent with the 1970s Ramat Aviv apartments of Labor leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.
Peres, of course, bolted Labor for Ariel Sharon’s Kadima party in 2005, becoming its candidate for president. Barak, while serving as Benjamin Netanyahu’s Defense Minister, also left Labor to establish Independence (both parties now defunct).
RABIN, APTLY, continues to have a very different status. Since the national trauma of his 1995 assassination, the martyred prime minister has become a national icon, the personification of the founding Palmah generation, the warrior-turned-peacemaker murdered by a despicable fanatic for pursuing historic reconciliation with the Palestinians.
Yet latter-day attempts to portray Rabin as a Peace Now dove are ahistorical. In his last Knesset speech, Rabin articulated a vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace that shares more in common with Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” than with the EU-favored Geneva Initiative.
Rabin spoke of a Palestinian entity that would be “less than a state,” stressing that Israel “will not return to the June 4, 1967 lines” and that Israel’s security border “will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.” He also embraced a “united Jerusalem, which will include both Ma’aleh Adumim and Givat Ze’ev” and called for final status border changes that would see Israel annex “Gush Etzion, Efrat, Betar and other communities.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz echoed such thinking at last month’s Munich Security Conference. Proposing a “two-entity solution,” Gantz argued that the ubiquitous two-state phrase contains “the illusion of [a return to] 1967 with the border lines, etc.; things that cannot happen.”
In the 2021 elections, Labor leader Michaeli repeatedly stressed being Rabin’s political heir. Perhaps the point required belaboring, some voters apparently finding it an unnatural fit. This while Gantz implicitly challenged her over who was the more authentic representative of the Rabin legacy – Blue and White doing well in the historically Labor kibbutzim and moshavim.
The political tension between Michaeli and Gantz was on display in the recent spat over the Defense Minister’s proposal to codify IDF officer pensions. That followed October’s public confrontation on the outlawing of six Palestinian NGOs, Gantz advocating the ban, Michaeli arguing that acting against “human rights organizations” damaged Israel’s global reputation.
It has been over 26 years since the murder, but on this issue Rabin’s record offers an indication on whose side the slain prime minister would have been.
The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS at Tel Aviv University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.