It would be hard to find a party in the entire history of politics that has had such rocky relationships with its own elected leaders.
No fewer than five of the 12 men and one woman who have led the Labor Party in its various incarnations since the foundation of the state have left it for other parties. They include David Ben-Gurion, the man who founded the left-wing party then known as Mapai (Workers Party of the Land of Israel) but who left it in 1965 to launch the rival Rafi (Israeli Workers List).
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Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna also left the party when they felt incapable of getting along with Labor’s membership or able to realize their political aspirations within its ranks.
So, on one level at least, the troubles of the current Labor Party leader, Avi Gabbay, are not surprising.
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Three months before the general election and following the abrupt dissolution of its four-year partnership last week with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah (which was called Zionist Union), a sizable faction within Labor is actually trying to depose its leader, convinced that the party is heading for electoral oblivion under Gabbay.
Where else would you find such dysfunctionality and disloyalty to the leader?
But some party insiders are convinced it’s different this time. This is no longer the old Labor, and Gabbay – who only joined the party at the end of 2016 and became its leader in July 2017, 18 months ago – is not another leader. The election polls, which in the last week have been predicting as few as seven or eight seats, could spell doom. And if they don’t get rid of Gabbay immediately, this could be the end for Labor.
There’s certainly nothing holy about a political party and no reason why it should last forever. But Labor isn’t just another party. It’s the party that founded a state. More than the Zionist movement, the Haganah (the underground, pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews) or the Israel Defense Forces, the main vehicle of socialist Zionism was the political and ideological structure built up by Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in the decades leading up to 1948. This provided the organizational framework essential for the founding of a new state and its orderly functioning in Israel’s early years.
But the party that Labor was until 1977 – not just in political office but in controlling vast swaths of the economy, trade union federations, health, culture and media – no longer exists. And for over 40 years, since Menachem Begin’s Likud ended its uninterrupted hold on power, Labor hasn’t managed to reinvent itself. It was the party that was too big to fail, but also too big to exist on a new, streamlined, modern political scene.
Amos Oz said in 2008: “Labor is at the end of its historic way, and does not present a national agenda.” Labor is still around over today, but what if Oz was right – albeit 60 years late in pronouncing its demise? Founding and securing the state was Labor’s historic role and national agenda; once that had been achieved, then what?
This is much bigger than the failings of just one leader. Perhaps Gabbay is simply the unfortunate one to be around when Labor has reached its long overdue expiration date? Or maybe it gave up the ghost a long time ago and all that was needed was for someone to pronounce the time of death?
Gabbay, the newcomer, can hardly be blamed for Labor’s terminal decline. Successive leaders have failed to articulate what the party is about in the 21st century. Is it left wing or centrist? Should it be emphasizing the Israel-Palestinian conflict or economic inequality?
Peretz and Shelly Yacimovich tried to reincarnate Labor as a social democratic party, but that didn’t reenergize voters. The bottom line is that Labor has won only two elections since first losing power to Likud in 1977 – when it was led by Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and Barak in 1999 (in 1984, when led by Peres, it was tied with Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud, resulting in a national unity government and half a term as prime minister for Peres). In both cases, it won because enough voters saw Labor, led by former IDF chiefs of staff, as more trustworthy on security issues.
Essentially, Labor is not and has never really been a left-wing party. In power, it was always the security party. Ben-Gurion was a security hawk, as were Golda Meir, Rabin and Peres. Levi Eshkol was a centrist and the only Labor prime minister who was not a hawk; Moshe Sharett served as Ben-Gurion’s temporary replacement and never led the party in an election.
Invariably, what wins elections in Israel is being relied upon to deliver security and fiscal responsibility. Currently, that’s only Benjamin Netanyahu – and Gabbay is no more responsible for not being Netanyahu than any of his predecessors were. If Labor is to win an election ever again, it will only be when it regains that mantle.
Perhaps a more seasoned campaigner with greater name recognition than Gabbay would do better in the polls. But until Labor has a leader who can seriously contend with Netanyahu as Mr. Security, or Netanyahu is no longer the Likud leader, it will remain in decline.
Still, Labor is not necessarily finished. At least a third of the votes in the coming election will be cast for centrist parties – including the new Hosen L’Yisrael party of Benny Gantz, who has so far been silent about actual policies. There’s no reason why a large majority of these votes could not be cast for Labor.
In the last 40 years, Labor’s “tribal” voters have died out. The only way to recreate that tribe is to rebuild the party’s reputation for serious competence. That reputation may have eroded almost completely, but no other party has built one either. Netanyahu is the only responsible grown-up on the scene – but that’s his personal image, not that of his Likud party.
Gabbay’s leadership may be doomed, and it will be too late to save this election, but Labor has the tradition and institutions to still make a comeback.