Analysis

Israel Isn’t Moving Rightward — So Why Can’t the Center-left Oust Netanyahu?

Labor Party and Meretz are talking about merging ahead of this September’s do-over election. While it might be a smart move in the short term, it could ultimately consign Labor to the wilderness

LABOR PAINS: Last Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, left, outgoing Chairman Avi Gabbay and Yitzhak Rabin, the last Labor leader to win a Knesset election, in 1992.
Tomer Appelbaum / Nati Harnik, AP

This Sunday will be the 27th anniversary of the last time Israel’s center-left won a Knesset election. On June 23, 1992, Labor and Meretz won a combined 56 seats in the new Knesset and, together with the five seats of Arab parties, had 61 seats, blocking incumbent Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from forming a new governing coalition.

It was a high point for both parties — Labor on 44 seats and Meretz 12 — one never to be reached again in the next eight elections. Then-Labor leader Ehud Barak would win in 1999, but only thanks to the short-lived experiment of holding direct elections for prime minister. In the accompanying Knesset election, Barak’s Labor only won 26 seats and Meretz slipped to 10.

The decline in both parties’ electoral fortunes has never been reversed. On April 9 this year, Labor recorded its worst-ever result, claiming only six seats. Meretz’s four seats was the worst it had ever done, except for 2009 when it won only three seats. Comparing the two elections, Labor and Meretz lost over 80 percent of the seats they had won in 1992.

Next month, both parties will once more be holding leadership elections. Labor will do so in a party-wide primary; Meretz via its party committee members. This probably means new leaders for both parties. Labor’s current head, Avi Gabbay, has already announced his intention to resign and is set to be replaced by either Itzik Shmuli or Stav Shaffir (although Amir Peretz, who last headed the party in 2006, is also in contention). Tamar Zandberg is fighting to remain head of Meretz, but former MK Nitzan Horowitz is now widely expected to win instead.

Labor MK Stav Shaffir in Tel Aviv, February 2019.
\ Moti Milrod
Itzik Shmuli in Tel Aviv, February 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

There’s a good chance that, under new leaders, both parties will run a joint slate of candidates on September 17. They will almost certainly do better than the combined 10 seats they won in April — if only because the system by which seats are allocated mathematically favors larger parties.

It is also likely that at least some of the voters they lost to the centrist Kahol Lavan headed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid will return due to that alliance’s lackluster performance during the first election campaign and subsequently. But there is so much ground to be regained that, ultimately, they can’t even do it together.

So what chance do the respective leaders of the center-left have in the next election to reverse the parties’ fates and put them back on track toward winning in the distant future? (No one is under any illusion that winning is even an option on September 17.)

The problem is that no one can quite agree on why the center-left, especially Labor, has entered this historic decline. The two most cited reasons are leadership and a long-term shift of the Israeli electorate to the right.

The generation that won in 1992 included Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin, while Meretz — which had just been created from a merger of three smaller parties — had Shulamit Aloni as nominal leader, flanked by veterans Yair Tzaban, Amnon Rubinstein and Yossi Sarid. Looking back over a quarter of a century, they may all seem like giants in relation to today’s politicians. But back in 1992, many in Labor feared that Rabin, who had been forced to resign after his term as prime minister in 1977, was over the hill at 70 and the party needed someone much younger. There were similar reservations regarding the Meretz leadership, which had never appealed to wide audiences before.

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg in Tel Aviv, March 2019.
Nir Keidar

In the intervening years, Labor has had eight leaders since Rabin and Meretz five since Aloni. They’ve included three women, two Mizrahim, professional politicians and newcomers, ex-generals, activists, a trade unionist, a kibbutznik, a journalist and a businessman. They’ve spanned three generations of Israelis. All have had their flaws, but they’ve been sufficiently popular and politically adept enough to win over party members in leadership elections. If anything, they have had a more diverse, more representative, more refreshing and, arguably, more talented array of leaders than other parties. If this is a leadership problem, then there’s no solution.

So if it isn’t the leaders, it’s the voters. There are many surveys that purport to show how Israelis have steadily moved rightward — but that’s not necessarily true either. If at all, Israel didn’t shift to the right in recent decades: It happened much earlier, in 1977, when confidence in Labor was broken and Likud succeeded for the first time in presenting itself as a credible alternative.

And the voters haven’t exactly abandoned “the left,” because on the issue that matters most to the Israeli voter — security — Labor was never on the left.

Likud has only lost three elections since that first victory in 1977. But for most of the past 40 years, the right-wing’s share of the vote has barely grown. In 1988, the Likud-led coalition of right-wing and religious parties won 65 seats, just as it did this April.

If the right-left balance in Israel can be measured by voters’ opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict rather than Knesset seats, then the last time the center-left won, in 1992, a clear majority of Israelis — just like Rabin — were against a Palestinian state. Nowadays, half of Israelis still support the two-state solution.

Labor won in 1992 precisely because it wasn’t left-wing: It was a security-minded centrist party led by a gruff ex-general. Actual left-wingers had Meretz; Labor owned the center, which, as it proved at the time, is the largest natural constituency in Israel. Based on the results of the last election, it still is. The two centrist parties, Labor and Kahol Lavan, together won 30.5 percent of the vote in April, while the two nonreligious right-wing parties, Likud and Kulanu, won 30 percent.

From Israel’s earliest elections, Likud (and its forerunners) always tried to brand Labor as a left-wing party. That has always been its strategy. To succeed, it needed two things: a persuasive campaign and, more importantly, another centrist party to push Labor leftward (at least in the public’s mind). It didn’t matter that the series of centrist parties that emerged from 1977 onward — Dash, Shinui, Kadima, Yesh Atid — rarely lasted for more than two electoral cycles; they still served Likud’s purpose.

And no Likud leader has been more talented at branding his opponents as “leftists” than Benjamin Netanyahu. So talented, in fact, that even some left-wing voters have bought into the myth and abandoned Meretz for parties that are essentially centrist.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog attending a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 26, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Labor’s last two leaders, Gabbay and Isaac Herzog, both understood that. But they simply weren’t good enough campaigners to challenge the Netanyahu narrative and were hampered by the presence of Yesh Atid (in 2015) and Kahol Lavan (this year) splitting the centrist vote.

The next leaders of Labor and Meretz, whoever they may be, will be doing Netanyahu and his successors a huge favor by running together in September, even though it will probably be a one-off. The solution doesn’t lie in a political merger, since the two parties are electoral poison for each other.

When Kahol Lavan implodes, as every new centrist party ultimately does, it will be even more difficult for Labor — after its partnership with Meretz — to reclaim the center ground. But paradoxically, that is its only launching pad for ever creating a credible alternative to Likud and one day winning an election.