Think About It: The future of Labor

The current state of the Labor Party heading into the coming elections seems a serious fall.

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
The Labor Party is holding primaries on Monday for its list toward the elections to the 21st Knesset.
The primaries are being held in an atmosphere of gloom. While predictions that Labor will not pass the 3.25% qualifying threshold seem excessively pessimistic, under the circumstances, 10 seats or more will be considered a success. In view of the fact that in the elections for the 20th Knesset, the Zionist Union (of which Labor formed three-fourths of the list) was believed to have a good chance for victory, the current situation is certainly a serious fall.
There are many reasons for Labor’s predicament: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s success in demonizing “the Left”; many tactical and strategic mistakes made by the party’s current chairman, Avi Gabbay; the meteoric success of the new player on the field, Benny Gantz; and two old problems that haunt the party, and which it has not yet managed to crack – negative sentiments toward the party resulting from historical events, and the failure to leverage the fact that a majority of the Israeli population are social democratic rather than neoliberal in their basic socioeconomic beliefs.
Let’s start from the end. It is no secret that in Israel, what determines the results of elections are security issues rather than socioeconomic ones. As long as Labor and its predecessors were perceived as “bit’honistim” (security-minded) – and in recent decades, if it placed a former chief of staff at its head – its chances of winning increased significantly. Presumably, if and when Israel reaches a modus vivendi with its neighbors, Labor will be able to win elections on the basis of socioeconomic issues –  if it will manage to survive the current elections.
The historical problem – i.e., the persisting feelings among many Mizrahim (descendants of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa) that in the early years of the state, the Ashkenazi-Mapai establishment pushed them around and created a built-in system of discrimination against them – is much knottier. Back in 1997, Ehud Barak’s apology to the Mizrahim in the name of the Labor Party for the anguish caused to them by Labor’s predecessors might have had some temporary effect – after all, he did have an impressive victory over Netanyahu in the 1999 elections.
However, the Mizrahim seem much less impressed with the fact that Labor has had several Mizrahi chairmen in recent decades, while the Likud has had none. In fact, in the next elections, of the first 10 names on the Likud list, nine are Ashkenazi men and one (Miri Regev) is a Mizrahi woman. On the Labor list, No. 1 is a Mizrahi, and the next candidates are likely to be split between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. Nevertheless, many more Mizrahim will be voting for the Likud in the next election than for Labor.
It is clear that what makes the difference between Labor losing some of its seats and being decimated is Benny Gantz. There is no doubt that many Laborites, who plan to vote for Gantz, view him not only as a savior but as a Mapai bit’honist.
After viewing the developments of the last week, including the personal makeup of Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, I have decided to continue to vote for Labor in an effort to stop its hemorrhaging, while at the same time hoping that Gantz will continue to gain support – but this time at the expense of the Right, not the Left.
To this end, I believe that it is more important that he reach an agreement with Orly Levy-Abecassis than with Yair Lapid. She is more likely to bring right-wing voters to the Center than Lapid, and if Israel Resilience will unite with Yesh Atid, Gesher is likely to fail to pass the qualifying threshold (Levy-Abecassis will not be able to join the Gantz-Lapid union because of the legal constraints she is operating under since she left Yisrael Beytenu).
It is very difficult to tell whether, under a different leader, Labor’s hemorrhaging would have been less severe, and even if there were circumstances in which Gantz might have decided to join the Labor Party rather than form his own party. I doubt whether Gantz – as leader of or as No. 2 in the Labor Party – would have made much of a difference.
However, there is also no doubt in my mind that Gabbay (whom I supported in the Labor leadership primaries in July 2017) has made some critical mistakes since being elected. The first was a result of his belief that if he could get Labor’s more left-wing MKs and voters to move to Meretz, he would both strengthen Meretz and be able to attract more center-right candidates and voters to Labor. Instead, he has created a situation where there are calls for a unification between Labor and Meretz to save both from extinction, while Labor’s more centrist supporters are moving to Israel Resilience.
In addition, the way in which he broke the coalition with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua has caused a lot of electoral damage, unless she decides to quit if she does not manage to join another existing list. If she decides to run independently, she is certain to fail to pass the qualifying threshold.
Finally, Netanyahu. Since he was first elected as prime minister 23 years ago, Netanyahu has acted systematically to delegitimize the Left – less so when Labor served in some of his governments, and much more so since 2015, when he formed his fourth, most extreme right-wing-religious government. That he does not distinguish between communists, social democratic Zionists, anti-Zionists, human rights activists and anyone who is critical of him on any grounds, or who hopes to replace him sooner or later – they are all labeled “Left” or “extreme Left” – completely pollutes the public discourse and places the Labor Party in a virtual sinkhole.
Any argument in return that “Right” could be anything from the liberal Right through the conservative Right, the moderate religious Right, the messianic religious Right, the anti-democratic racist Right to the fascist Right – and that parts of the current government seem to be pulling in the direction of the last three variants of the political Right, which are much more dangerous to Israel than any variant of the Left might be in theory – seems to fall on deaf ears.
Despite everything and perhaps because of everything, I plan to vote for Labor on April 9 and in today’s primaries, to ensure that no matter how small the Labor representation in the 21st Knesset will be, the Labor team will consist of experienced MKs with a record of excellence, who will stand up for the values I believe in and be able to man several ministerial positions, should Netanyahu be defeated or forced to step down for legal reasons, and should a centrist-inclined government be formed after the elections under Benny Gantz or whoever will replace Netanyahu in the Likud.
In the meantime, the Likud should be congratulated for selecting a team for the 21st Knesset that left out some of its more shameful representatives from the 20th.