Labor Party’s swan song

Labor and Meretz are at a political crossroads.

LABOR’S AMIR PERETZ (left) and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz join forces on Monday. (photo credit: LABOR-GESHER PARTY SPOKESPERSON)
LABOR’S AMIR PERETZ (left) and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz join forces on Monday.
The Labor Party and Meretz will run together on a unified list in the upcoming Knesset election in March. Since there was a fair chance that one of the parties (or even both) would not pass the 3.25% electoral threshold – a scenario that would mainly serve the right-wing bloc and strengthen the chances of Netanyahu to reach a majority of 61 Knesset and form a right-wing government without Yisrael Beytenu – the unification of the two parties was a necessary move not only for the entire center-left bloc but mainly for the political survival of both parties.
Labor and Meretz are at a political crossroads. On the one hand, the creation of Blue and White ahead of the April 2019 election was a crushing knockout for the Labor Party. While in the 2015 election the party led by Isaac Herzog, who in the framework of the Zionist Union won 24 seats (18.7% of the votes), the party headed by Avi Gabbay crashed into six seats (4.4%), as nearly two-thirds of its 2015 voters gave their votes for Blue and White.
In the September 2019 election, despite the departure of Avi Gabbay and the appointment of Amir Peretz as the new party chairman, and the latter’s declarations that the union with Orly Levy’s party, Gesher, would bring right-wing voters to Labor, the final result was disappointing. In practice, even though Labor-Gesher won six seats, both lists together received less votes in comparison to the April 2019 election (6.2% vs 4.8%). Bottom line, although the Labor Party’s repeated declarations that the union with Gesher has strengthened the unified list, in fact, the latter lost 25% of its voters. 
Meretz, on the other hand, has been in a survival struggle for over a decade. Although the party had won five or six seats in most elections since 2003, it barely passed the threshold (3.25%) in the April 2019 election, receiving only four seats (3.6%). In the September 2019 election, however, despite the hope that the collaboration with Ehud Barak and Stav Shaffir in the framework of the Democratic Union would bring an electoral achievement, it turned out to be a major electoral failure winning only five seats (4.3%).
In essence, the main implication of this unification is the final labeling of Labor as a left-wing party, as practically, there is virtually no ideological difference between the two parties. In essence, Labor’s shift process to the Left has been ongoing for more than a decade, in which its culmination has just come with the unification with Meretz, a union that in the past was considered a heresy in Labor.
Since its beginnings, from the Mapai era to the early 2000s, the Labor Party was considered a center-left party, where hawks and doves could sit together. This was the actual power source of the Labor Party, which won by a majority 10 out of 13 election campaigns from 1949-1992.
HOWEVER, SINCE the 1992 election, in which Labor headed by Yitzhak Rabin won 44 seats (34.7%), the party has only been shrinking electorally, mainly around the failure of the Oslo Accords and the outbreak of the Second Intifada, which the Israeli public perceived as an ideological failure of the Israeli peace camp ideology led by Labor. Thus, in the 2003 election the party headed by Amram Mitzna plunged to just 19 seats (14.5%), a result that was repeated itself in the 2006 election when the party was led by Amir Peretz (19 seats and 15.1%).
The situation of the party has deteriorated as time has passed. In the 2009 election, Ehud Barak led the Labor Party to a dismal result of 13 seats (9.9%), and in the 2013 election, under the leadership of Shelly Yacimovich, the party won a disappointing result of just 15 seats (11.4%).
The left-leaning tendency of Labor significantly began when Yacimovich gained power in the party. Although Yacimovich’s security views were not affiliated with the political Left, her social-democratic agenda encouraged many leftists, especially young left-wing ideologues, to join the party.
In the end, not only did these new party members help Yacimovich occupy the Labor leadership ahead of the 2013 election, they also significantly influenced the party’s Knesset list by supporting candidates who are fully identified with the Left. Thus, while Labor was previously the next stop for IDF generals, such as Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Matan Vilnai, Danny Yatom and Ami Ayalon, figures that are identified with the mainstream in Israel, in recent years, Labor has become a party that is saturated with Knesset members who hold socio-economic orientation.
In other words, from being a center-left party that wielded the security flag, Labor transformed to an economic-social Left party. This fact only reinforces the bitter truth that the Labor apparently ended its political role as a center-left party seeking to take power, a role that is successfully conducted today by Blue and White, a party that attracted almost all the voters for center-left bloc in last two elections.
In conclusion, the union between Labor and Meretz seems unlikely to increase the number of seats in the March 2020 election. Given that center-leaning Labor voters who oppose the union with Meretz will probably vote for Blue and White in the upcoming election, it is likely that Meretz will lose its Arab voters, who will abandon it in favor of the Joint Arab List, mainly since there is no realistic spot on the Labor-Meretz list for an Arab candidate. Thus, although in the last election the two parties won together 11 seats (9.1%), the likely outlook is that Labor-Meretz will receive a single digit result in March.
The writer is research assistant and PhD candidate at the University of South Wales, a former foreign affairs and political adviser to former Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog, former deputy chairman of the Labor Party Youth, and a candidate on the Labor Knesset list.