Labour shrinks as left fragments

March 8, 2017
Sarah Benton

The large rally for Zionist Camp (Labour plus Hatnua) and against Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on March 7th, 2015. At the time, polls were predicting a victory for this alliance over Likud. Photo by Oren Ziv/

Israel’s opposition: a camp with a backpack

By Shmuel Rosner, Jewish Journal
March 07, 2017

Let’s talk about something completely irrelevant: Israel’s Labour Party.

Once upon a time, it was the party that built Israel and turned it from an idea into a state. Today, it’s an opposition party, with a mediocre present and an unclear future. Yes, it is still, officially, the main opposition party, and its head, Isaac Herzog, is the official head of the opposition. But since all polls predict its demise in the next election – giving it between 8 to 12 seats in the Knesset, compared to its current 24 – Israelis no longer consider it as a contender in the real political battle that excites the Israeli public. That is, the battle to unseat Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The Labour Party now begins a long and arduous primary cycle. On July 3rd, it will choose its next leader. 40% of the votes are needed to get elected in the first round, and if no one reaches the threshold – a likely scenario – a second round will take place ten days later.

Five candidates, Herzog being one of them, have already announced their intention to run in the primaries. There will be more of them. And that is not a sign of strength, of a big prize awaiting the winner, but rather a sign of weakness. It is a sign that the current leader has not been able to establish the authority with which to deter other candidates from challenging him. It is a sign that the party seems ready to reach for any thread that is offered to it. It is a sign that no one seriously considers the next Labour leader as a true contender for the job of Prime Minister – the list of candidates includes people that no one would consider fit to be Prime Minister.

Why should anyone care about a primary in a party that’s irrelevant? For one – because of Labour’s history. It is still, in Israel’s imagination, the party opposite of Likud. If we had a two-party system, Likud and Labour would be the two parties fighting for votes.

But there are other reasons to consider the Labour Party’s future. Labour is not just a party, it used to be a representative of a certain political camp. It used to be the main vehicle of political identity for Israel’s left of centre. Its uncertain future is testimony to the fact that Israel’s left-of-centre camp is not just having problems winning elections, it is having problems deciding what it is, what ideology it wants to pursue, what party can represent it, what type of leadership it needs. Israel’s left of centre is drifting, its voters moving like nomads from one party to the other. They used to have a home: the Labour Party. They now have a backpack. Constantly on the move in search of a political miracle.

Consider the previous rounds of elections: from the year 2000, when Ehud Barak lost his job as Prime Minister, portions of the centre-left turned to Shinui; then they turned to Kadima, headed by Ariel Sharon, then by Ehud Olmert, then by Tzipi Livni; then they turned to Yesh Atid; and then back to Labour, dressed up as the Zionist Camp. Leaders were replaced after every failure. Just count the number of leaders the Labour Party has had between the 2000 Barak and the 2017 Herzog: Ben Eliezer, Ayalon, Miztna, Yachimovitz, Peretz, Peres, Harish, again Barak – this is not the right order, because the order doesn’t really matter. The party that had five leaders from 1969 to 1997 had eight leaders from 2002 to 2013.

This must be a sign of something greater than fierce personal battles. This must be a sign of an ideological crisis – the crisis of a camp unsure of itself, its ideology, its destiny, its priorities.

Each leader of the Labour Party made his or her own attempt to reprioritize the agenda of the party. Peretz turned to the periphery, Ayalon attempted to project a Rabin-like strength, Yachimovich was the voice of social justice seekers, Ben Eliezer was the mainstream Labour of past years. Similarly, every party that momentarily captured the imagination of left-of-centre voters had its own agenda. Shinui was for economic reforms and the fight against the Haredi agenda. Kadima was for unilateral action to settle the Palestinian issue. Yesh Atid is the expression of mainstream centrism.

Peace is no longer the unifier of the left-of-centre camp. Netanyahu is the unifier.

Israel’s left of centre knows what it doesn’t want: It doesn’t want Netanyahu to be Prime Minister. Netanyahu is the only real issue that unites this camp, and hence the trouble Herzog has had as the leader of Labour. Herzog, having good reasons (an opportunity for peace negotiations), committed the ultimate sin of conferring with Netanyahu in an attempt to join his coalition. He made a fatal mistake by thinking that peace – or the possibility of peace negotiations – will whitewash this sin. But it did not. That is, because peace is no longer the unifier of the camp – as it used to be during the Nineties. Netanyahu is the unifier.

One wonders what’s going to happen to this political camp in the post-Netanyahu era. Will it get another right-wing leader against which it can unite – maybe someone like Avigdor Lieberman or Naftali Bennett? Will it be more inclined to accept the role of partner in a broader coalition with a new leader from the right? Will it rise to capture the helm from the hands of a weakened and possibly fractured right – and if it does, what will it do with it?

The fight over the Labour Party might show that it is still premature to ask these questions. It shows that the camp that was once represented by this party is still in soul-searching mode.

After Rabin, why Israel’s Labour Party never recovered

By Ben Sales, JTA
October 27, 2015

TEL AVIV – The assassin’s bullet that killed former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago on Nov. 4 also stunted the centre-left party that championed peace: Rabin’s once-mighty Labour.

In the two decades since Rabin’s slaying at the hands of a Jewish extremist, Yigal Amir — the killer opposed a peace deal with the Palestinians — Labour has fallen from being Israel’s founding party and moderate-left flagship to competing among a handful of opposition factions, a perennial loser in Israel’s elections.

“It’s hard for [Labour] to win because most of the nation is convinced that with the Palestinians, it’s impossible to get to an agreement,” said Bar-Ilan University political science professor Shmuel Sandler. “The issue of security is the top issue that influences the Israelis. It’s not like in the U.S., where ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’”

Labour and its predecessors ran the government uninterrupted for the Jewish state’s first three decades — from founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion through the leaders who brought Israel through the victorious Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.

Then, beginning in 1977, there were a series of close contests with Likud, its right-wing rival. Likud won three of the next four elections, two of them by just one seat. Labour and Likud effectively tied in the 1984 election and shared power.

In 1992, Rabin swept Labour back to victory with 44 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

Malchei Israel (Kings of Israel) Sq, renamed Rabin Square: youth have lit memorial candles to Rabin every year since his assassination on November 4th, 1995. Photo from Reuters

But since his assassination, Labour’s story has been one of near-total failure, with experts split on how the party should move forward: by embracing its core ideology, or moving toward the political centre.

Except for an abortive government from 1999 to 2001, Labor has lost every election since 1992. Likud or its offshoot Kadima have ruled Israel uninterrupted for nearly 15 years. Elections in 2009 and 2013 saw Labour drop to fourth and third place, respectively. Its centre-left, pragmatist mantle has been adopted by newer parties like Yesh Atid, which was founded three years ago.

Labour’s problem, according to Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri, is that the party hasn’t been able to present a viable alternative to Likud’s hard-line approach.

“Just saying again and again and again, we have to go back to negotiations [with the Palestinians], that’s not good enough,” he said.





David Ben-Gurion congratulates Rabin, IDF Chief of Staff for the victory in the 1967 six-day war. The gap between the military and politics has widened since then. Photo by Cohen Fritz/GPO




Ever since Rabin’s government began making territorial concessions to the Palestinians, Labour’s hawkish opponents have attacked the party as weak and dangerously naive. Rabin, a venerated ex-general who won the Six-Day War, had touted his security credentials in the 1992 campaign. The only other Labour candidate to win, Ehud Barak in 1999, was the most decorated soldier in Israel’s history.

But after Rabin’s death, Likud took aim at his bureaucratic, dovish successor, Shimon Peres, now 92. Ads in 1996 for Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu accused Peres of “gambling too much with Israel’s future,” being “disconnected from reality” and planning to divide Jerusalem. Netanyahu won the election.

Netanyahu said in a 1996 debate,

“Mr. Peres, you brought our security to an unprecedented nadir. This is a direct result of your terrible policy, that placed our security, our children’s security, in [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat’s hands.”

It’s a message Likud has repeated ever since, and one that has resonated following a four-year intifada in the early 2000s that killed some 1,000 Israelis. Vying for his fourth term this year, Netanyahu won the election after telling voters that he would not establish a Palestinian state in the coming term or divide Jerusalem.

Religious and Russian Israelis are right-wing and have grown as a proportion of the electorate 

Israel’s changing demographics have also hurt Labour. The million immigrants who arrived from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s tend to vote for right-wing parties. Religious Jewish Israelis, who also generally support the right, have grown in number as well.

In recent years, Labour has tried to rebrand itself as more than the party of peace. In 2013, party leader Shelly Yachimovich called Labour a “centrist party” and campaigned on its social-democratic credo, focusing on housing and the economy while barely talking about peace and security. Labor finished third in the election, behind Likud and Yesh Atid.

Ahead of this year’s vote, Labour again campaigned on negotiations with the Palestinians while still branding itself as centrist. The party united with former Likudnik Tzipi Livni to burnish its centrist credentials, but still came in second to Netanyahu’s Likud.

And since it lost, Labour has continued to eschew talk of peace, instead using phrases like “separation” and advocating a “diplomatic arrangement” with the Palestinians. In an address this month at the Yitzhak Rabin Centre in Tel Aviv, Labour Party chairman Isaac Herzog pushed an Israeli-Palestinian agreement but did not use the word “peace.”

“The separation between the states needs to be applied politically in a diplomatic solution,” Herzog said. “We can’t ignore it unless [we] hide our heads in the sand.”

Sandler and Avineri say tacking to the centre is still a good strategy for Labour, given Israeli demographics and scepticism of Palestinian intentions. But some party supporters say Labour will only return to power if it embraces Rabin’s unapologetic pursuit of peace.

“One of the fundamental and tough mistakes was that, since the assassination and the days of Ehud Barak, the party decided not to present a real alternative that followed Rabin’s path,” Labour lawmaker Hilik Bar told JTA. “We tried to take the party to the centre on issues of defence and diplomacy, but we kept sitting in right-wing governments. We lost our identity.”

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