Political Affairs: Labor's war for survival

The Labor primary next week will find a once-powerful body struggling to survive.

LABOR LEADER Avi Gabbay is harangued by MK Eitan Cabel (right) as MK Amir Peretz looks on during a meeting of the party last month (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
LABOR LEADER Avi Gabbay is harangued by MK Eitan Cabel (right) as MK Amir Peretz looks on during a meeting of the party last month
Labor Party Knesset members and candidates in next Monday’s primary competed this week with their dismal analogies for the race.
They called it a war for survival, a bloodbath, and one even said that if this week’s Likud primary was like a world war – because so many Likud MKs will not come back to the Knesset – in the Labor race, the odds of survival are more like a concentration camp.
However harsh the analogy, it cannot be doubted that the Labor race is more fateful than the one in the Likud, where the same candidates as last time more or less rearranged their chairs.
With the exception of the return of Gideon Sa’ar and the additions of Nir Barkat and Yoav Gallant, all that happened in the Likud was that backbenchers the world had never heard of were replaced by new backbenchers the world will never hear of.
Even Oren Hazan, who made headlines around the world when he got his selfie with US President Donald Trump, left quietly. Not a single article was written for any non-Israeli publication about Hazan losing his job.
All the global media cared about in the Likud primary was whether the result was good for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (neither good nor bad) and whether the current party in charge of Israel would become more extreme (no).
By contrast, the Labor race is huge and has already attracted international attention. The party of world-renowned leaders David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin – the ruling party that founded Israel and ran it for decades – could end up on the wrong side of the electoral threshold and die a cruel death.
The party that led in the polls much of the last election as part of the Zionist Union could lose in historic and internationally unprecedented proportions, going from 24 seats to zero, from 786,313 valid votes to under the 3.25% threshold that is expected to be about 150,000 votes.
On Wednesday, Smith Research, which has been the most accurate pollster in Israel, became the first to publish a poll that predicted Labor would win a record low of only five seats, teetering on the threshold.
Some 60,000 Labor members will choose among 44 candidates competing to win those four slots behind Labor leader Avi Gabbay, who won the top slot in July 2017. But it could actually be only three realistic slots, because Gabbay passed a proposal at last month’s Labor convention giving him the right to select the party’s second candidate.
“THE PARTY’S situation is definitely tough,” said MK Nachman Shai. “It is indeed a war for survival. That is clear. But it’s not Auschwitz. Whoever said that didn’t lose a grandmother there.”
Shai is running for reelection, even though he is 72 and has had a long and successful career. In one day on Wednesday, the Mevaseret Zion resident campaigned in Tel Aviv, Shfaram, Tamra, Acre, Haifa, Herzliya, Petah Tikva, Hod Hasharon, and Tel Aviv again.
“I am still running, because I see politics as a tool to serve the public, especially the elderly, who need representation, and I can do that the best,” Shai said.
Shai said that on the campaign trail, he has heard from a clear consensus of Labor members that their top priority is defeating Netanyahu and not their loyalty to the party, even if they have voted for it for decades, and that because of that, many of the party’s voters would instead cast ballots for Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party.
He said he expects that priority to impact the primary, where many Labor members will decide not to vote, because they would feel guilty taking part if they do not intend to cast a ballot for the party in the April 9 general election.
“We are trying to get them to stay and vote, but they are embarrassed,” Shai said.
But he also said he expects the party’s situation to stabilize after its list is chosen.
“First we have to finish the long, embarrassing primary process which has taken away so much of our energy and our money, so we can focus on the election that matters,” Shai said. “The election is still a long way away, and we can still get the right message and make the right strategic decisions. We need to run an emergency campaign saying Labor cannot disappear.”
MK YOSSI YONAH, who has been a vocal critic of Gabbay, said he just hopes Gabbay will stay out of the race and not issue a list of recommended candidates, as he has said he would. He said that if Gabbay does release such a list, it could boomerang against him, after he has led Labor to its current state.
“I hope the election will be decided by Labor members on their own, behind a screen,” Yonah said. “Recommendations are not dictates. It would be right if he won’t make them, but Labor is blessed with intelligent members who understand what their MKs have accomplished. I trust their independent thinking.”
Yonah said he knows “many MKs in my party will be going to the unemployment bureau,” and said that was sad, because they had done such a good job serving the public. But he also expressed hope that the party’s situation could still change.
“Gantz’s party is the kind of trendy party that comes and goes, but in the next two months, the public will ask tough questions, learn the views of people in that party and decide that they can better trust a party that is democratic and one they can count on, that is the only party that founded the state, and we still have so much to offer,” Yonah said. “From my mouth to God’s ears. I hope God listens to our prayers. God and Labor both go way back, with a long tradition and remarkable achievements.”
MK Merav Michaeli said she has noticed on the campaign trail that Labor’s candidates are more complimentary of one another than ever and sticking together, in part because they are all aware of the party’s challenges. She said that once the primary ends, the public will see Labor’s list and remember the importance of having experienced legislators who can get things done.
“I don’t subscribe to all those world war analogies,” she said. “Of course, there are worries, but there are also hopes that things will get better, and I believe we need to make an effort to make them better.
“Gantz is great, but to do what he says he wants to do, he needs Labor to be strong and accomplish what he wants to do.
“Optimism is a political choice. You need to be optimistic when things are not going your way, and that can help them go your way.”