To Save Labor From Total Collapse, Some Look to Barak and Livni

Historic Israeli party heads for primary election amid serious concern that it won't make it into the next Knesset after the April 9 national ballot

Avi Gabay,Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak
Ilan Assayag, REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The Labor Party will select its Knesset slate on Monday, in the shadow of polls predicting an unprecedentedly poor voter turnout in the primary due to anticipated poor outcome for the party in the national elections.

Ten days later, the party will have to inform the Central Elections Committee whether it intends to run alone in the national elections or merge with another party.

Possible options of teaming up with Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael or Meretz are not moving ahead at the moment. Labor Knesset members are trying to work on reconnecting with Tzipi Livni’s party, Hatnuah, and with former Labor chairman Ehud Barak, to make its Knesset roster more attractive and raise the number of seats the polls predict for it.

A source close to the party told Haaretz that the party does not rule out Livni and Barak, who have a good relationship with each other. However, he said it is too early to assess the chances of success of such a move, which will be looked at closely only after the party primary.

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Labor Party chief Avi Gabbay (center) flanked by Amir Peretz (left) and Omer Bar-Lev (right) at the party's conference in Tel Aviv, January 10, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

“If there is no big link, with Gantz or Meretz, other connections will have to be made, for example with Livni and Barak,” a Labor MK told Haaretz. According to the MK, “the Labor Party is on the verge of a historic collapse. These names can add us a few seats and help lift us up.”

A new opinion poll published yesterday by the Israel News Corporation, put some color back in Labor’s cheeks, predicting it would garner seven seats, after a week of predictions that it would receive no more than four or five seats, and that it was hovering dangerously close to the electoral threshold (which stands at 3.25 percent).

According to Saturday’s poll, if Hosen L’Yisrael teamed up with Yesh Atid and former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, the number of Labor seats would fall to five. “We’re not afraid for the future of the party. It’s clear to us that Labor will be in the next Knesset and so will Meretz,” a source close to Labor chairman Avi Gabbay said.

Hatnuah Chairwoman Tzipi Livni speaking in the Knesset, January 1, 2019.
Emil Salman

A Labor lawmaker told Haaretz that his party was now in a “PR trap,” as far as its campaign goes. “We haven’t been able to garner an image that attracts voters. When Labor presents itself as an alternative to Gantz on the left, Meretz does it better than we do and voters ask themselves why vote Labor when Labor presents itself as a centrist party" he said.

A source close to Gabbay said he believes the party would not join forces with Meretz, although the issue has been widely discussed in the media over the past few days. Gabbay, the source said, was ideologically opposed to the move.

“A link to Meretz will turn Labor into a niche party. Gabbay is perturbed by the fact that the media is promoting the move and that could further harm Labor’s image,” he noted.

Benny Gantz sharing a joke with then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak ahead of Gilad Shalit's release on October 18, 2011.
Ariel Hermony / Defense Ministry

Two Knesset members told Haaretz over the past few days that running on a unified slate with Meretz could split the party, because Labor would then be identified with a clearly leftist party.

The primary has been a source of major tension in the party’s leadership. Some 60,000 party members are to vote on Labor’s Knesset slate. It is believed that predictions that Labor will receive fewer seats in the next Knesset will mean a particularly poor voter turnout in the primary.

Gabbay is hanging his hopes on the slate the party members will chose, headed by MKs Itzik Shmuli, Stav Shaffir, Shelly Yacimovich, Amir Peretz, Omer Bar-Lev and Merav Michaeli.

“The party members are not enthusiastic about going out to vote, there’s a chance that only five or seven MKs will get in, and it’s clear in any case who they will be,” an activist in the party’s central committee said.

A low primary turnout will strengthen MKs who are relying on the campaigns to bring in more party members “as well as political deals, and it could weaken those who are relying on free voters,” the activist said.

Meretz Chairwoman Tamar Zandberg.
Olivier Fitoussi