November 19, 2018

Israeli politics updates: Centrism and Leftism


In the first half of this week, Israel was abuzz over statements made by the relatively new leader of the Labor party, Avi Gabbay. Speculating about his imaginary coalition, following an imaginary election, followed by his imaginary victory, Gabbay said that he will not be partnering with the Arab party to support his coalition. Speculating about an imaginary peace process, and the imaginary agreement with an imaginary partner, Gabbay also said that he would like the settlers not to be evacuated — but rather stay where they are.

Nothing of this has any immediate consequence on any reality we are all familiar with — and the fact is that what politicians say today they can easily change tomorrow (see Ariel Sharon’s evacuation of Gaza). Still, Gabbay is clearly trying a political maneuver. He is trying to get rid of the Labor’s leftist image. He is trying to move to the center and steal votes from Lapid’s Yesh Atid (and possibly also from the softer right-wing parties).

Will he succeed? It is too early to tell. Will he be able to convince his party to go along with such a strategy? The answer is yes — if it shows signs of working. If not, his party rivals will gladly use these statements to behead him (politically speaking). One thing seems clear: Gabbay, like every opposition leader of every opposition party in the world (Democrats, you too), faces a choice — does he try to build on the anger of the left, on its hatred of Bibi, and create a stark difference between his ideology and the one of the ruling coalition; or does he move to the center in the hope of attracting centrists and even some disillusioned rightists, with the assumption that the left will have no choice anyway but to support him?

Gabbay chose the center. Maybe because he is more comfortable there (he joined the political arena as a soft right-winger), maybe because he believes that is the better strategy. His voters now must decide whether they accept his choice. For some of them, it is clearly difficult.


The second half of the week was dedicated to Meretz, the party to the left of Labor. In Meretz, there is an internal battle that’s been going on for a while. A lot of it is about control of the party and personal animosities, but there is also an interesting question that the party must decide: Should it open itself to primaries, or remain a party controlled by a much smaller group of party activists?

Party leader Zehava Galon made a surprise move yesterday by resigning from the Knesset. She is the one fighting for having an open primary, as she made clear when explaining her resignation:

“I believe that I must invest all my energy in the struggle to increase our power as a party and political bloc, by opening the ranks to new audiences,” she wrote in a long Facebook post. “Meretz cannot exist as a closed club that ignores you — its voters and supporters — and blocks additional forces from taking part in our struggle to inject new blood on the left.”

Is she right to make such a demand? There are two aspects to this question: the value-based and the political. Those who believe that having open primaries is the more moral system (more democratic, less back-room deals) will support Galon. Those who think that primaries are the system with less value (lesser Knesset Members, more populist party) will not. Then there is the political question: could open primaries attract more members and voters to the party? And what if the result of open primaries is a less attractive list of candidates?

Her resignation from the Knesset was surprising, and it seems to reveal a level of desperation on Galon’s part — she might understand that this is a battle for her political future. But by doing something as dramatic as this, Galon forces the question of primary or no primary on her party in a way that is going to change the party no matter what. Either Galon wins, and the party goes to primaries, or she loses and the party replaces its leader, which would also send a clear message to the voters: Meretz is not going to become more democratic internally.