Analysis

Whoever Becomes the Head of Israel's Labor Party Will Face Mission Impossible

Twenty-five years ago, the party had 44 Knesset seats. Now it's predicted to get 15 seats in the next election, highlighting the Herculean task it faces

Labor Party leadership candidates Isaac Herzog, left, Amir Peretz, Erel Margalit, Omer Bar-Lev and Avi Gabbay, July 2, 2017.
Moti Milrod

Seven candidates, only five of them relevant, are competing in Tuesday’s primary to be elected Labor Party leader and its candidate for prime minister. There are newish faces and familiar faces; those with charisma and those liable to put you to sleep; the friendly and the antagonistic; the slightly modest and the incurably arrogant. None of them are the miracle worker the Labor Party needs.

The graph doesn’t lie, and the curve is bleak. The party that won 44 seats a quarter-century ago has barely managed to win 20 over the past 20 years. The 24 seats that Zionist Union won in the last election was a kind of electoral illusion, the fruit of the pact between Labor (led by Isaac Herzog) and Hatnuah (led by Tzipi Livni), along with the 2.5 Kadima seats that evaporated.

Labor alone, without crutches or airbags, could never get more than 15 seats at the polls. Recent polls have the whole alliance getting only 12 seats – and that’s on a good day, when the stars and moon are aligned. That’s no way to replace a government.

Five candidates

Even during the government’s toughest days, when the ruling party was down in the polls, the chief opposition party that was meant to be the prime beneficiary was forced to go to bed hungry. Half of Labor’s voters are now parked with Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party. But even if some of them make their way home, Labor won’t become more relevant. Its sicknesses, faults, weaknesses and internal dissension won’t disappear Tuesday evening, nor next week after the second round of voting, when the outcome will probably become known.

Whoever is chosen will be fated to cope with a party that consumes its leaders, one beset by rot and despair. True, Yitzhak Rabin was forced to live alongside Shimon Peres, and in their day there were also camps and resentments. But they were Rabin and Peres. Once the great leaders exited and all that was left was the negative phenomenon that grew increasingly worse, we got what we’ve got.

To halt the contraction and irrelevance, something greater is needed than just another leader whose days will be numbered from the moment he’s elected. The party’s current chairman, Herzog, is proposing a “bloc” – the magic word that seeks to reproduce the relative success of the last election. But without Lapid, who at any given time would prefer to don a yarmulke and inaugurate a new neighborhood in the settlement bloc than form a political bloc with a left-wing party, there’s nothing to talk about.

Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay seem totally confident they can pull it off alone with the disintegrating brand called Labor. Omer Bar-Lev is talking about another round to choose the party leader and Erel Margalit is remaining noncommittal. In the end, though, life will dictate what happens. If the right-wing parties form some kind of alliance before the next election, the center-left camp will have no choice but to put ego aside in favor of the chance to replace a Likud government that by the next election will have been in place for a decade.

It could be that this primary is Labor’s last chance to rehabilitate itself, if only partially – though it could be that this opportunity has long passed.