March 18, 2019

Labor Party Is Still Alive but Dying

Avi Gabbay. Photo by Reuters

The precise moment when a politician becomes pathetic can be difficult to pin down. Take Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay for example.

When Gabbay declares he is going to be the next prime minister, it sounds ambitious, even unlikely, and yet tolerable. Then he says it again, and it feels awkward. Doesn’t he read the polls? Doesn’t he talk to voters? Then he says it again, and one looks again at the polls that show merely 2 percent of Israel’s voters believe he is the most fit to be prime minister.

Maybe that’s when a politician becomes pathetic. Or maybe he is just playing the game he must play. The game of “never-surrender,” of “we-will-fight-on-the-beaches-as-long-as-we-can.” 

Gabbay conquered the Labor Party when it was already in trouble. His short term as party leader — a term that will surely end very soon — was miserable. On Feb. 11, Labor members went to the polls to pick a list of candidates, knowing full well that the list must be short, as the party has little chance of becoming more than a footnote in the next Knesset — if it will even be there. 

“It is not easy for parties to die, especially for a party as important and great as the Labor Party.”

It is not easy for parties to die, especially for a party as important and great as the Labor Party. It was the party that was the main builder of Israel and ruled the country for many years. And yet, Labor seems to be dying. Its voters aren’t loyal — not like Likud voters. Its inner culture is destructive, its agenda unclear. One day it chooses a leader from the center-right (Gabbay), and the next it seriously ponders the option of merging with a far-left party (Meretz). One day it abandons the two-state solution as its main agenda to talk mainly about social justice, and the next day it suddenly raises the peace-camp flag — as a last-minute attempt to win back fleeing voters. 

The decline of a once great party is not pretty to watch, but ultimately, a party is just a vehicle. And the vehicle called Labor has had difficulty finding riders (voters) not because its model is outdated or its engine is creaky. It has difficulty finding riders because it can’t decide its destination. Social justice? There are other parties with similar agendas that can actually act on it (Kulanu). The peace process? Few voters see it as relevant. Safeguarding the Supreme Court? Yair Lapid can do that. Fighting for a more liberal Israel? Meretz can do that. Having power? Benny Gantz is the relevant alternative for those believing that unseating the right-wing coalition is a realistic goal. 

What is the Labor Party about? It is mostly about nostalgia. About missing a political arrangement that no longer exists, and wanting to revive an era that’s long gone. Labor leaders speak longingly about the time of Yitzhak Rabin’s 1990s, not realizing — how are they not realizing?! — that most Israelis don’t miss that Rabin era, and don’t consider it a great success that needs to be revived. The Middle East changed. Israel changed. The world changed. The agenda changed. When Israel moved to the center, the Labor Party hesitated — until it was too late. Now its space is taken, oddly, by people who walk like old Labor and talk like old Labor. Gantz the soldier comes from a family of farmers. Moshe Ya’alon the soldier is a member of a kibbutz. If you are looking for a new Rabin, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense, credible hawk, Labor would be the wrong place to search.

So, maybe Labor is not really dying. Maybe it is just changing its address. The spirit of Labor lives on in many of the new Israeli parties that seem more successful. And as it lives on, it does so not as the Labor of the ’90s, not as the Labor of Shimon Peres who dreamed about an unreachable peace and a New Middle East. It lives on as the Labor with the hawkish, often crude realism of the 1950s and 1970s, with centrist soldiers and highly patriotic Zionists.

So what if it is no longer called Labor? So what if it drives a newer, shinier vehicle?


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.