Labor party leaders Avi Gabai and Amir Peretz (public domain)

The challenge for the next Labor Party leader


Israel’s Labor Party has done it again. The head of the party is out – they usually don’t get much time to consolidate their control over the party – and in four days a new leader will be elected. Two candidates made it to the finals: Amir Peretz, a veteran politician, former minister of defense, former head of the Labor party, and Avi Gabai, a newcomer to politics and to the party, formerly a short-time minister of environmental protection. Peretz is a long time card-carrying Labor member – but not always a loyal member. He left the party when it suited him politically. Gabai was appointed minister by Moshe Kahlon, when he was, just a few months ago, a member of the Kulanu party.

So, these two have one thing in common: they are not Labor party ideologues. They are politicians looking for an opportunity and finding it where it exists. When Peretz did not see opportunity in Labor, he joined Tzipi Livni and her Hatnuah party. When Gabai decided to become a politician – having been an accomplished manager in the business sector – he joined Kulanu. The Labor party, for both, is not a religion. It is a platform.

There are three basic models of parties in Israel today. There is the tribal party – like Likud, Habayit Hayehudi, the Haredi parties, or the Arab party – parties with a solid and loyal group of voters. The Labor Party has loyal voters, but they are getting older, and their numbers seem to be shrinking. There is the one-man party – like Yesh Atid, Kulanu, Hatnuah, Israel Beiteinu – parties that are built around a charismatic leader and not much else. There is no Kulanu without Moshe Kahlon. There is no Hatnuah without Livni. Israel Beiteinu is Avigdor Lieberman. If there’s no Lieberman, there’s no party.

The third model – the party with ideology – is trickier to define. Meretz is both tribal, and ideological (it is not a one-man or one-woman show – its head, Zehava Galon, could be replaced without much consequences). Yesh Atid is a one-man show, but has ideology. Other parties are less ideological – they have an agenda, but it is often loose. Kahlon’s agenda is economically “social” and politically “rightwing,” but you can imagine him playing a part in coalitions of different types and with starkly different agendas. Lieberman is completely unpredictable. His manner is hawkish, but he often surprises with sudden leftward turns. Livni has a general worldview, but within a short period of time she was a member of Likud, Kadima, Hatnuah, and finally joined forces with Labor (when Labor and Hatnuah formed the Zionist Camp).

Which of these models might work for the next leader of the Labor Party? A lot has been said and written in the last couple of days about the fact that both candidates for the Labor leadership – historically representative of Ashkenazi Israel – are from Mizrahi origin. Peretz was born in Morocco. Gabai’s parents immigrated from Morocco. Two Moroccan Jews are battling to head the Labor Party. This is a remarkable moment of change, a sign of an Israel in which one’s ethnic origin is becoming of less importance and consequence. It is also a sign that the Labor Party can no longer claim to have a tribe on which to rely. These two leaders are not members of the historic tribe that made the Labor Party so successful for so many years.

So, if not a tribe, what else? Clearly, it might be too late to turn the Labor Party into a one-man show party. Most parties that are one-man show parties were founded by, well, one man or one woman (Kahlon, Livni, Lapid, Lieberman). The new leader – Peretz or Gabai – is unlikely to have control over the party that is as tight as the control Linvi has over her party, or Kahlon has over his. In fact, both potential leaders of the Labor Party know that in the past two decades this job has been the least secure job in Israeli politics. Since 2000, the Labor Party has replaced its leader nine times (Ehud Barak got two terms). Likud – during the same period – had two leaders, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Without a large-enough loyal tribe, and without the ability to have tight control over the party, the only option for these two competitors – if they are serious about trying to become the next Prime Minister – is to offer an alternative. And, of course, this ought to be an alternative not just in the sense of being different from what other parties propose, but also reasonable enough to appeal to voters. In a crowded field of parties, all searching for a niche, all claiming to have a remedy for Israel’s troubles, all competing with a prime minister whose policies seem to be in line with what a large portion of the public wants, this will not be easy.