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After Their Deal With Netanyahu, the Party That Founded Israel Is Now Dead. Here's What It Means

Three perspectives on Labor's decision to join the coalition, driving away what remains of its voter base

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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The Labor Party's Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli at a press conference, July 28, 2019.
The Labor Party's Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli at a press conference, July 28, 2019.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

The Labor Party’s Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli are now prime targets for rotten tomatoes, sharing that burden with their partners Kahol Lavan’s Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi. But to examine their decision to join the coalition, which was approved on Sunday by the Labor Party committee, three aspects demand consideration (Unless we just want to continue cursing at them, which is also a legitimate choice.)

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From a political perspective, Peretz and Shmuli did not make a mistake, and even acted rationally, when they agreed to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. The Labor Party, which now has only three Knesset seats, has reached the end of the line. Not only are its possibilities limited, they are nonexistent. This is related to Peretz, who stubbornly clung to Gesher’s Orli Levi-Abekasis – but it’s that he doesn’t deserve all the blame. Peretz is just another character in the larger historic story of the Labor Party’s collapse. He simply cast himself, with a remarkable lack of awareness, in the role of the party’s final victim.

The party’s electorate has not disappeared and has not really changed its tastes. In recent years, they just never missed an opportunity to abandon the party every time a more attractive political framework arose – starting with Kadima, through Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and finally with Kahol Lavan. In this context, the last remnants of Labor’s link-up with Kahol Lavan, whose leaders Gantz and Ashkenazi are the ones who joined up with Netanyahu first, makes sense. The force of reality did not leave Peretz and Shmuli any other choice.

From a policy perspective, though, Peretz and Shmuli have much weaker justifications. Labor’s preliminary agreements with Kahol Lavan may include socioeconomic aspects, such as raising the minimum wage, increasing stipends for senior citizens, free education from birth and other expressions of the social-democratic beliefs in whose name they are supposedly entering the Netanyahu government – as Shmuli, who is designated to become the social affairs minister, explains in their defense.

It is quite likely that not a single one of these issues will find its way into the new government’s fundamental principles, if they ever come into existence. For example, in the coalition agreements between Gantz and Netanyahu, they are not mentioned once. This is how Peretz and Shmuli have become indirect partners to a coalition agreement made up mostly of personal guarantees between Netanyahu and Gantz, which will soon face the test of the High Court of Justice due to clauses suspected of being unconstitutional.

Furthermore, on the issue of annexation, Peretz – the man of peace – and Shmuli – the man of left-wing Zionist pragmatism – could very well be signed on the greatest achievement of the settler movement. Both Shmuli and those in Kahol Lavan tend to minimize the importance of the declarations on annexation, and present it more as a sort of declarative tax payment to the hard right. It’s possible that Netanyahu, who takes the issue seriously in public statements, in the same way the coalition agreements do, is just trying to mislead the settler lobby. But it is also possible that he’s telling the truth, which also happens once in a while.

As a result, Peretz and Shmuli are dependent on Netanyahu’s decision on the matter. A not unreasonable scenario is that Netanyahu, for whom annexation is not at the ideological center of his heart’s desire – is interested in leaving behind a major legacy. Moreover, it is quite possible to assume that if Netanyahu believes that annexation will improve his political fate – and as a result, his legal situation as well – he will not hesitate to do so. In that case, the votes Peretz and Shmuli received may very well put into practice what many of their voters see as no less than a disaster. By examining these things from the policy perspective, it can be inferred that Peretz and Shmuli have simply found themselves excellent jobs, while trampling the desires of the voters who sent them to Knesset.

This leads us to the third perspective, the symbolic and emotional one. A great number of those who voted Labor in recent years, more than they are social democrats and more than they oppose annexation – and in fact more than anything else – simply despise Netanyahu. This was even before his criminal cases and indictments. They see his leadership as the sickest evil facing Israeli society. This is the main reason that a large part of their voters view what Peretz and Shmuli are now doing – the legitimization of Netanyahu that is implied by their sitting in a government he heads – as a grave betrayal.

Those who hate Netanyahu watch in desperation how the prime minister – once again – has defeated his political enemies, and with a deep feeling of humiliation. This feeling may not have any political logic or considerations of profit and loss customary in situations of painful compromise. It more resembles supporting a football team and hating its sworn rivals correspondingly. But these are exactly the same elements that voting for a political party is made of. This is the reason that the Labor Party, yes, the party that built the country, is now left voterless, and will likely remain that way in the future. The party committee made sure of that on Sunday.

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