Among Newbie and Veteran Laborites, Primary Election Showed All Hope Is Not Lost – Yet

Voters in the Monday primary shared criticism of party chairman Avi Gabbay, but agreed that the old-time left-wing, social agenda of the party is still the only way to go

Labor members celebrate as the primary's results come in, Tel Aviv, February 11, 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

Random passersby had to fight their way through the crowds on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street Monday, where Labor activists and volunteers gathered during the party primary. Snacks, leaflets and flowers were offered to anyone who looked like a potential voter.

Only two polling stations were open to members of the party that for decades, in its various iterations, ruled the country – perhaps a reflection of the low expectations for the Tel Aviv turnout. Still, the number of people, tables, banners, posters and balloons squeezed into the spot in front of the station at the Beit Sokolov journalists’ association headquarters seemed totally disproportionate.

“I don’t think they expected so many people to vote here today. So it gives one hope for what the future will bring us – that many people will vote for Labor,” said Esti Rojansky, 54, who had only recently joined the party and came to cast her ballot.

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Like other voters that Haaretz spoke to, Rojansky expressed the hope that the recent polls predicting a major backslide for the party in the 21st Knesset would prove wrong in the coming weeks, as Labor finalizes its slate and the directions it will take.

Many of the interviewees stressed the broad range of the 44 candidates who were running in the primary, and cited the people they hoped would drive the party forward, including Itzik Shmuli, Stav Shaffir, Shelly Yacimovich and Merav Michaeli – all of whom reached the top five spots in the final count later in the evening.

Voters queue to vote in the primary election of Israel's Labour Party, in Tel Aviv, February 11, 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

“I know the party is strong, strong enough to overcome its ups and downs,” said Tomo Hen, 36, a member of the Pink Panthers LGBT organization. “I believe that the rest of country will see that the slate will draw more votes because this is a party with strong roots and candidates with strong beliefs.”

Bad leadership behavior

It was hard not to notice the skepticism of those voting regarding Labor Chairman Avi Gabbay, who joined the party in 2016 and replaced its leader, Isaac Herzog, the following year. Many took issue with the way Gabbay had announced the separation from his former partner in Zionist Union, Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, during a television broadcast in January.

Said Hen, who blames Gabbay for Labor’s general decline in the polls, “I like some of his decisions but I don’t like others, such as the separation and the way he chose to do it – live. I think it was a big mistake and we are now seeing that in the numbers.”

Some people mentioned Gabbay’s business background – as former CEO of Bezeq, the largest telecom company in the country – before joining Labor.

“I think he’s a nice person but he was not born into the Labor Party and most of the people voting grew up with it,” 85-year-old Rina Chen told Haaretz, after casting her ballot at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds station. “I don’t think he represents the history or the spirit of the party. He comes from the business field. But this [Gabbay’s chairmanship] is a choice we have made and we have paid the price for it.”

“That’s how democracy looks. Exactly like this,” Chen added.

Her sentiments were echoed by Guy Cohen, 51, who said, “Avi Gabbay is a good businessman, but I’m not sure if he is good in politics. I don’t think he is powerful enough to effect a big change, the change that is necessary.”

Although many of those interviewed were critical of Gabbay, almost no one said they saw a better alternative.

“He is worthy and a decent person with a decent agenda, but he has not been able to communicate with the people. You need someone to sweep the people along with you and this is something he is not doing, obviously, and this is what the polls are showing,” said Ori Braun, 51. “The question is, who has the power to attract the people?”

Ariela Katz, standing outside Beit Sokolov, spoke about Gabbay’s political agenda: “I don’t like the way he acted with Tzipi Livni and the way he is talking about being less left-wing and moving more to the center to get more votes. Eventually it will only ruin it for him because we want to stay on the left – we want to talk about peace and we want to talk about things that we believe in.”

Gabbay’s move to the center could cost Labor dearly in the April 9 election, said Katz, adding that the party should stand up for its opinions even if that won’t bring in a critical mass of support.

Biggest issues

Asked about the issues that should top the agenda of the Labor Party, the voters had differing opinions. Whereas some mentioned the peace process and diplomacy, others emphasized matters that they say affect their daily lives – ranging from education, welfare and social issues, to LGBT rights, gender equality, the high cost of renting apartments and workers’ rights.

Despite the disparity, however, most of the people who spoke to Haaretz agreed on the relevance of Labor today and in the future, and the importance of its social agenda.

“Most of the people I know are workers and they need help in their everyday life with things like wages, laws and pension plans,” said Menashe Tsabag, 53, standing outside on Kaplan Street. “I think the only party that can do that and do it in the best way is the Labor Party.”

Labor’s candidates “should be very clear about what they stand for: We stand for social issues and we stand on the left, in political terms. We must stand for this because this is what we are. We are not something else. We cannot masquerade,” added Tsabag. “I believe strongly in the social ‘face’ of the party.”

Even with the negative polls and the reports of people leaving Labor, Monday’s primary did offer a glimmer of hope for the party’s future, with a voter turnout of 56 percent – just 4 percent less than the 2015 primary.

Moreover, the resulting ticket will no doubt please a number of new and hopeful Laborites, like Rojansky and Braun, who were casting their primary ballots for the first time.

“I only joined because of Stav Shaffir, so she pulled me into this,” said Braun. “I felt that this was the right thing to do and this is the right way to deal with democracy – it was a good feeling.”

He added, “Things are bound to happen in the next two months. We’ll see what’s going on with the prime minister and the allegations [about possible corruption and bribery] and then we will know where we are heading, in what new direction. If there will be a new direction. I’m not sure there will be.”

Said Rojansky, “I think many people claim they will vote for [Benny] Gantz, but they don’t really know yet what he’s going to do. We still have two months ahead of us and many things can change within such a short span of time.”

“I hope,” she said, “it will be like the Phoenix.”