Earlier this month, while addressing a kibbutz leadership conference at one of the Dead Sea hotels, Labor party chairman Avi Gabbay ended his remarks with a few personal words.
“I’m aware of those who have despaired of the Labor party,” he told an audience, filled with some of Labor’s diehard supporters. “There are those who argue about things I’ve done and disagree with me, and that’s totally fine. But I suggest that we remember why the right wins repeatedly; there they don’t have to agree with all the leader’s decisions in order to support him. I’m asking you to stick with me during the tough times, and I promise you we’ll win.”
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It’s no coincidence that Gabbay used the word “despaired.” Since its establishment 50 years ago as a merger of several parties, Labor has been through all kinds of painful upheavals, but had always managed to retain stable strongholds in the country – in particular at kibbutzim and moshavim. But two-and-a-half months before the election for the 21st Knesset, with the polls giving Labor single-digit results, even these strongholds are shakier than ever.
Giora Zaltz of Kibbutz Lahavot Habashan, who is also chairman of the Upper Galilee Regional Council, made up only of kibbutzim, links Labor’s weakness to the loss of its “envoys” in the country’s economy, industry, education, army and civil service. “The Labor party has lost all its hold over the past 30 years,” he says. “Religious Zionists and the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] have taken their place, which is why there are people who feel the party and its people are no longer relevant. They have no influence on the agenda.”
Moran of Kibbutz Beit Kama in the south, where Zionist Union got more than 41 percent of the vote in the last election, said:
“I was and remain a socialist in my essence,” she says. “Sometimes I make compromises, but not at the level of principles. On the other hand, the ethical Labor party seems to have simply gone bankrupt.”
And when a business goes bankrupt, people flee to the competition; last week Labor closed its list of candidates ahead of a February 11 primary, and there are no promising new candidates. Apparently those with good prospects aren’t interested in joining Labor, preferring other centrist parties. In the past they turned to Yesh Atid, and this time they seem to be connecting to Kulanu or new parties that have been formed.
In August, the secretary of the Moshav Movement and chairman of the Israel Farmers Federation, Meir Tzur, announced he was joining Kulanu, whose leader, Moshe Kahlon, promised him the agriculture portfolio in the next government. Recently it was reported that Alon Schuster, formerly chairman of the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council and a longtime Labor member was negotiating to join Benny Gantz’s list, and prominent names from other kibbutzim are appearing on other lists, including Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher and Hayamin Hehadash.
This trend isn’t new, however. In 2014, the former head of the Eshkol Regional Council, Haim Yellin, joined Yesh Atid even though most of the region’s residents voted Labor. In 2017, several other council heads expressed support for Lapid and his party. One of them was Sigal Moran, who was chairman of the Bnei Shimon Regional Council for nine years. Moran told Haaretz that she left Labor because she failed to forge a link between the party and the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition, a social justice organization representing Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.
“I couldn’t manage to get a single discussion that touched on values,” she said. “There was also an annoying measure of self-righteousness. I call it leftist self-righteousness, and some of my best friends suffer from it – a tendency to see everything in black and white.”
The question of morals and values comes up a lot in discussions with current and past party members. For Armi Faraj of Moshav Ranen in the south, deputy chairman of the Merhavim Negev Regional Council, the answer is clear. “They pulled one over on us,” he says. In 2012 he left Labor for Likud. While it’s true, he says, that being a member of the ruling party opens some doors, the main reason he left Labor was because it had “turned too far left.”
Zaltz from the Galilee notes that both kibbutzim and moshavim are becoming more politically heterogeneous. “Whereas once if the vote counters would find two-three votes for Mahal [Likud] on the kibbutz, people would be shocked. Now you can find votes for Likud, Lieberman, Habayit Hayehudi – everything.”
But along with claims of morphing values there are practical reasons for the change.
The ability to make a difference is enhanced when one is supported by a ruling or coalition party, support that Labor hasn’t been able to offer the outlying areas for many years.
An example is the recently elected mayor of Yeruham, Tal Ohana, now affiliated with Kulanu. Like many of the others interviewed, she grew up in a Labor home, and since she describes her positions as center-left, becoming active in Labor seemed natural. In 2012 she joined the party, and was active in the party’s congress and its central institutions.
The turning point came when she and a political ally, Michael Biton, tried to advance a multiyear plan to strengthen the southern city that would have cost 126 million shekels ($34.2 million). It went nowhere for two years. “Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] didn’t want to pass it,” Ohana says, adding that similar plans for towns in the north, whose mayor were close to Likud, were approved.
“I understood the great value of having a connection with a ruling party,” she said, and the path toward contending for the mayoralty under Kulanu’s banner was short.
In her case, leaving Labor was not due to ideological disappointment, but because the party, “couldn’t be an effective cash machine.” For a city in an outlying area, she said, it’s even more important to be close to those who pull the purse strings.
Another problem is that Labor, despite its weakness, is not making much of an effort to attract new populations like Haredim, Bedouin, and people from lower economic classes who might be interested in playing a role. The combination of primaries and reserved spots on the party ticket – the kibbutzim and moshavim still have the 14th and 22nd slot on the list, respectively – makes it hard for new people to get involved.
There are still some kibbutz members, especially the older ones who are still loyal to Labor, and not giving up.
Muki Tzur of Ein Gev, who researches the party, thinks the crisis presents an opportunity. The process occurring now, he says, stems from “the sociology of the Jewish people and the interim period we are living in, which is redefining politics.”
Still, he isn’t sure Labor has what it takes to meet the challenges it faces.
“I think society is rebuilding itself, and it doesn’t always have building materials,” he says. “It’s a painful process, but I could be wrong. I’m from a different generation.”
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