The Owl: Squaring the circle

An open letter to Avi Gabbay.

Avi Gabbay (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Avi Gabbay
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Congratulations, Avi Gabbay! You are now the chairman of the Labor Party. For the next few days, you’ll be high in the sky. Pundits, activists and insiders will crown you as the leader of the Left, the bright new hope. Soon we will see your face on every TV screen, saying with full confidence that you’ll lead Labor to victory and the country to peace and prosperity.
Don’t be fooled. Countless Labor leaders in the last two decades believed that it’s all about them, their talents, their experience and abundant charm. Without exception, they all failed. The bright new hope of yesterday became the tarnished, tired ex-leader of tomorrow. It’s not about you. The problem of the Labor Party is not personal, nor does it have much to do with who’s on top.
Don’t believe the consultants, advisers and pundits who will undoubtedly try to tell you that it’s all about PR, media presence, body language and leadership tactics. You will hear endless talk about “rebranding” the Labor Party, as if it is a product that has to be forced on an unwilling public. Some will tell you to “go to the Center,” others to “cling to the Left.” These things may be important, but they are ultimately secondary.
Your real problem is not tactical, just as it’s not personal. It will not be solved by simple tricks and schemes, clever media strategy or boundless charisma (if you have it). The problem is vicious and systemic. The first thing you have to do is to recognize it, then devise a strategy to solve it. Only then we can speak about tactics.
Speaking frankly, math is against you. Even if by some magic trick or brilliant campaigning, Labor becomes the biggest party, even if the Left-Center block achieves a parliamentary majority, even then you’ll lose. The system is hacked against you. That’s because you cannot count on the Joint Arab List as a member of your coalition. If there’s one binding rule in the current political system, is that the Arab parties are non-kosher. This is matched by their contrarian position of principled opposition to the Zionist system as a whole.
You’re in a vicious cycle, Mr. Chairman. For the “Left/Center bloc” to ever beat Netanyahu, you need a parliamentary majority. That means getting votes from the moderate Right, even cooperating with ultra-Orthodox or “soft” right-wing parties. Cooperating with the Arabs, something that even the Left didn’t dare to do for years, is likely to compromise such efforts. But if you don’t cooperate with the Arabs, if you keep the rules of the game as they are, you are losing 13 parliamentary seats, and cannot get a majority even if you draw enormous numbers of votes from the Right. In the hacked political system of today, any leader of the Left is akin to a CEO in a market with cutthroat competition, who cannot use a large part of his financial assets. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Winning the elections is squaring a circle.
In order to bring this problem anywhere close to a solution, your strategic goal is to change the rules of the game, to gradually instill the idea that some of the Arab politicians, at least, are legitimate coalition partners. In every tactical move you do, you absolutely must have this vital goal in mind.
But how? First and foremost, you must emphasize the core ideas of the Labor Party: Zionism, Jewish-Arab equality, social democracy, political moderation and the quest for peace with the Palestinians. You must state, unequivocally and from the very first moment, that the Labor Party is ready to work with any other political force – Jewish, Arab, secular, religious, Left, Right and Center – in order to promote these core ideals. We do not boycott anyone. You must highlight this position again and again: sticking with core values, no boycotts.
We must create the basis for a political culture of ad-hoc alliances. Cooperate with others when we have a common goal, fight them when we disagree. Cooperate with the ultra-Orthodox parties in social issues, but struggle against them when LGBT rights and religious freedom are on the line. Cooperate with the Arabs on civic equality, democracy and the peace process, but highlight the disagreements with them on the IDF and Zionism. Only a strategy of incessant, ever-shifting adhoc alliances can break the political boycotts, gradually change the rules of the game and solve our structural problem.
This strategy is not easy, nor will it be welcomed by everybody. In the beginning, at least, the Labor Party may even pay a painful political price. But if you really want to win, that’s the only way to go.
The writer is a military historian and senior lecturer in the History and Asian Studies Departments, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.