Labor vs. Likud Battle Resembles Democrats vs. Republicans More Than Ever

Can Labor's newly elected, social-conscious and female-friendly list create a gender gap that will win the elections?

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Labor MKs Merav Michaeli, Shelly Yacimovich and Stav Shaffir celebrate Labor Party primary results, January 14, 2015.
Labor MKs Merav Michaeli, Shelly Yacimovich and Stav Shaffir celebrate Labor Party primary results, January 14, 2015.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In trying to explain Israeli politics to American audiences, the previous mantra went like this: The division between left and right is an optical illusion. Besides their different approaches to the Palestinian conflict, the contrasts between the country’s two major parties are trivial – both are conservative, security-minded and male-dominated. Contrary to accepted stereotypes, the previously socialist Labor Party is now avowedly capitalist while the Likud is home to Israel’s most vocal social populists.

This historic anomaly began to disintegrate several years ago, but on Wednesday morning it disappeared altogether, with the publication of the results of the Labor Party primaries. After the Likud’s new list turned out to be more conservative and less female-friendly, along comes Labor to present a list that is more female-oriented and more liberal than ever before. The differences between the two parties were never as stark, both ideologically and personally: Likud is from Mars, as it were, and Labor is from Venus. The Likud is older, more entrenched and almost uniformly male while Labor is suddenly a younger, more varied and vaguely radical Social-Democratic party.

The comparison to American politics is equally pertinent, though Labor still lacks one potentially critical element: Unlike the Democratic Party, Labor will still be hard pressed to portray itself as the natural home for Israel’s underprivileged minorities, including Arabs, Russians or Jews of North African descent – otherwise, the analogy is almost perfect. The Likud establishment is also trying to neutralize a noisy right-wing minority but finds itself moving rightwards in the process, while Labor, like Democrats, is drawn to an increasingly liberal agenda. It's not a coincidence, of course, that the Democratic Party's most prominent potential candidates for the presidency are both female (Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren) while the Republican field consists of a herd of males stampeding for the job without one token female among them.

The gender gap helped the Democrats take the White House twice in recent years. In the last elections it stood at 20 percent: 7% more men voted for Mitt Romney, but 13% more women voted for Barack Obama. The Democrats expanded the gender gap in the ongoing “culture wars”: They succeeded in portraying Republicans as old-fashioned reactionaries who are indifferent not only to the plight of ethnic minorities but of women and gay people as well. The recent verbal volleys hurled in Israel in the wake of unsavory comments made by members of Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Yehudi party on gay marriage echoed one of the battle arenas in which the Democrats achieved a resounding victory.

Of course the most outstanding feature of Labor's new list, which can be rightly described as revolutionary, is the relatively large number of women in realistic positions – seven at least, if not more – and more importantly the placement of three women among the party’s top four positions. But here’s another, no less dramatic comparison: In the Labor list that competed in the 2003 elections just over a decade ago, six of the first twelve candidates boasted an impressive background in the security establishment (Amram Mitzna, Shimon Peres, Matan Vilnai, Ephraim Sneh, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Danny Yatom). In Labor's new list there isn't a solitary figure of similar stature, and the one or two who will ultimately adorn the party’s roster will be parachuted by Herzog and Tzipi Livni onto the list, as is their prerogative.

Learning from its bitter experience in the last elections, when it consciously decided to refrain from engaging Likud on the divisive Palestinian issue, Labor may hesitate to focus its campaign on the social, cultural or gender revolution that its new list potentially portends. The Likud, for its part, will try to portray the new Labor list as nave, weak and defeatist, while its spokespeople can barely contain themselves from alluding to Labor’s new females as obviously out of their depth. The question is whether Labor can emulate the Democrats, go for broke and leverage a collective female grudge all way to electoral victory: It's a daring gamble, no doubt, never mind that Israel, as we all know, isn't America.

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