October 19, 2018

Israel’s opposition: A camp with a backpack

Let’s talk about something completely irrelevant: Israel’s Labor 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 Labor 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 Labor leader as a true contender for the Prime Minister job – 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 Labor’s history. It is still, in Israel’s imagination, the party opposite of Likud. If we had a two-party system, Likud and Labor would be the two parties fighting for votes.

But there are other reasons to consider the Labor Party’s future. Labor 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 center. Its uncertain future is testimony to the fact that Israel’s left-of-center 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 center is drifting, its voters moving like nomads from one party to the other. They used to have a home: The Labor 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 center-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 Labor, dressed up as the Zionist Camp. Leaders were replaced after every failure. Just count the number of leaders the Labor 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 Labor 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 Labor of past years. Similarly, every party that momentarily captured the imagination of left-of-center 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.

Israel’s left of center 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 Labor. 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 rightwing 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 Labor 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.