In anti-Netanyahu Stronghold, There Are Only Two Choices in This Israeli Election

No one’s talking about Likud on Israel’s biggest kibbutz. The battle playing out here is between the centrist Gantz's Kahol Lavan and the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance

Labor-Gesher-Meretz candidate Merav Michaeli talking to Givat Brenner residents, February 22, 2020. Anyone wanting a government that won't be hostile to kibbutzim must vote for her party, she says.
Ilan Assayag

A Martian landing on Israel’s largest kibbutz might come away with the mistaken impression that just two parties are running in Monday’s election.

Not Likud and Kahol Lavan, which would have been a good guess. After all, they’re the two biggest parties and the only ones (out of eight with a good chance of making it into the Knesset) that have a shot at forming the next government on March 2.

The big battle playing out on Givat Brenner is between centrist Kahol Lavan and the much smaller, newly merged leftist alliance of Labor-Gesher-Meretz. Likud and all the parties to its right are not even part of the discussion around the big, long tables in the communal dining room here. Which is why nobody thinks it’s strange that at the widely advertised election event held last Saturday on this kibbutz near Rehovot in central Israel, only representatives of the center-left Zionist parties bothered showing up.

There was a time when the kibbutzim, long considered a stronghold of the Israeli left, voted overwhelmingly for Labor and Meretz in their various constellations. But today, they are more a stronghold of the anti-Netanyahu camp than of any particular ideology or party.

“In the past, the kibbutzim voted almost overwhelmingly for their so-called mother parties on the left,” notes Alon Pauker, a historian of the kibbutz movement who teaches at Beit Berl Teachers Training College in Kfar Sava.

Givat Brenner residents listening to members of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance and Kahol Lavan state their electoral case, February 22, 2020.
Ilan Assayag

“Now,” he says, “they are more concerned with which party has the best chances of blocking or ousting [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. That’s how [now-defunct centrist party] Kadima came to win more votes than Labor on the kibbutzim in 2009, and it’s the reason that Kahol Lavan has done so well on the kibbutzim this past year.”

In both election rounds in 2019, Kahol Lavan won a majority of votes on most of the roughly 260 kibbutzim around the country. In April, it captured 50.4 percent of the vote, with Labor getting 20.8 percent and Meretz another 12.8 percent. In September, Benny Gantz’s party garnered 50.2 percent of the kibbutz vote, with Labor (which by then had merged with Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party) getting 16.3 percent and the Democratic Union (a merger between Meretz, the Greens and a party headed by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak), winning another 19.3 percent. (This was also the first time that Meretz, in some incarnation or another, received more votes on kibbutzim than Labor.)

Hysteria on the kibbutzim

Pauker, a member of Kibbutz Be’eri in the south, predicts that Kahol Lavan will perform even better on the kibbutzim in the upcoming election, the third in less than a year.

“In the past two elections, there was some hysteria on the kibbutzim about whether Labor and Meretz would win enough votes to get in,” he notes, referring to the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent. “But now that they’ve merged, that’s no longer an issue, and I believe many of those kibbutzniks who voted for Labor or Meretz in the past two elections out of this fear will now move to Kahol Lavan. For them, the issue is no longer right-left, but saving Israel’s democracy. And these people believe the best way to do that is to give their vote to the biggest party.”

On Givat Brenner, which has 2,700 residents, support for Kahol Lavan has been even higher than average. (This population figure also includes non-members residing in private neighborhoods built on kibbutz-owned land, which helps explain the small pockets of support for right-wing parties here in the previous two elections.) Formerly part of the kibbutz movement affiliated with the Labor Party, Givat Brenner – like the vast majority of kibbutzim today – is defined as a “renewed” kibbutz, which means that many of its operations have been privatized.

In the April 9 election, 53.5 percent of eligible voters here supported Kahol Lavan, with 23.3 percent casting their ballots for Labor and another 6 percent for Meretz. In the September 17 election, 52.2 percent voted for Kahol Lavan; 17.7 percent for Labor-Gesher; and 13.8 percent for the Democratic Union. Here, as on other kibbutzim, many voters were not thrilled with the new alliance between Labor and Gesher because of Levi-Abekasis' previous affiliation with the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. As a result, the Democratic Union gained many new votes in the fall election.

Givat Brenner residents listening to members of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance and Kahol Lavan state their electoral case, February 22, 2020.
Ilan Assayag

Hoping for a victory

With nine days to go until the election, about 60 members of Givat Brenner have gathered in the kibbutz's main communal hall on this rainy Shabbat morning for a “Shabbatarbut” (political and cultural forum) election event. Most of them are elderly. (Taking place at the same time and clearly a much bigger draw for some of the younger families on the kibbutz is a children’s play.)

Representing Labor-Gesher-Meretz and up first in the very short lineup of speakers is Merav Michaeli, the outspoken feminist and prominent Labor Party lawmaker. In an effort to lure back some of the many kibbutz voters here who have defected to Kahol Lavan, she appeals to some of their innermost fears.

Kahol Lavan leader “Benny Gantz hasn’t ruled out a coalition with [Rafi] Peretz and [Bezalel] Smotrich,” she tells them, referring to two of the most far-right, religious extremists in the current government. “Anyone who wants to make sure that Gantz forms a different kind of government, one that believes in a two-state solution, one that will bring Israel security, and one that will stop being hostile to the kibbutzim – must vote for us.”

Over the weekend, Labor-Gesher-Meretz had erected election billboards around central Israel with Gantz photoshopped into a picture with the alliance's three faction leaders. Kahol Lavan's campaign directors didn’t like this attempt by the center-left list to "appropriate" their leader at a time when they were putting all their efforts into winning over voters from the so-called soft right. They demanded that the posters be taken down.

Asked by a Givat Brenner member whether she was insulted by that demand, Michaeli responded: “You should actually consider this a warning sign. It shows that Gantz just wants to be prime minister, and he doesn’t care who his partners are. Is that really what you’ve been wishing for?”

In the three campaigns it has waged since being formed, Kahol Lavan has tried to woo voters away from the smaller left-wing, Zionist parties by emphasizing the importance of being the biggest party of all. But as the previous two rounds have proven, being the biggest doesn’t necessarily mean a party can form a majority coalition.

In the April election, Likud was slightly bigger than Kahol Lavan in terms of the number of Knesset seats won, while in September the roles were reversed. In neither case were they able to cobble together a governing coalition of 61 lawmakers, because their respective blocs weren’t big enough.

Kahol Lavan candidate Yoav Segalovitz listening from the back of the hall at Kibbutz Givat Brenner, February 22, 2020.
Ilan Assayag

That didn’t stop Kahol Lavan lawmaker Yoav Segalovitz, next up at the Givat Brenner gathering, from urging the kibbutzniks in the audience to vote for his party. “Only if we’re the biggest – and this time, I mean by a big margin, not just one seat – is there any hope for a decisive victory,” he told them. Otherwise, warned the former director of Israel Police’s investigations division, it would be back to square one: That is, yet another election that ends in a stalemate leading to yet another election.

Were the kibbutzniks convinced? It appeared that here on Givat Brenner, like elsewhere in the country, most voters have already made up their minds. The good news for Segalovitz is that Kahol Lavan can probably count on winning most of the votes on this kibbutz for the third time in a row. Indeed, it is no secret that even the current kibbutz secretary (who refused to answer questions on the matter) shifted his support in the last election from Labor to Kahol Lavan.

Sign of the times

In the past, such a defection by a high-ranking member (the secretary is the most senior administrative position on a kibbutz, and is held on a rotating basis) would have been considered scandalous. But perhaps the clearest sign that times have changed is that Labor-Gesher-Meretz does not even have one representative of the kibbutz movement in a safe spot on its list – something that was once par for the course. Kahol Lavan, on the other hand, has two.

“I believe that more members will vote for Kahol Lavan this time around,” says Ruta Keidar, 74, a former Givat Brenner secretary who has lived here nearly half a century. She, though, will remain loyal to Labor, a party she has supported for as long as she can remember.

Givat Brenner resident Ruta Keidar. Believes “more members will vote for Kahol Lavan this time around.”
Ilan Assayag

“To me, there is far too much similarity between Kahol Lavan and Likud,” she says. “Kahol Lavan is too much to the right for my taste. I know it’s become a dirty word today, but I still consider myself a proud leftist.”

As does the historian Pauker, who simply can’t understand why so many of his fellow kibbutzniks – “who are otherwise very intelligent people” – insist on voting Kahol Lavan.

“I just don’t get this craziness,” he says. “After all, most of the kibbutzniks are far closer in their positions to Labor-Meretz, and we’ve already seen that it’s not the size of the party that matters but the size of the bloc. So even if Kahol Lavan loses five seats and those five seats go to Labor-Gesher-Meretz, that won’t change its ability to oust Netanyahu one bit. But assuming it is able to put together a coalition, it would have a dramatic effect on the tone of the next government.”

David Tal, the official representative of the Labor Party on this kibbutz, who defines himself as “center-left,” says he was not thrilled with the recent merger between his party and Meretz. He feared it would push Labor too much to the left. “But I understood that it was necessary,” says the 80-year-old, who has lived his entire life on Givat Brenner.

David Tal, the official representative of the Labor Party on Kibbutz Givat Brenner.
Ilan Assayag

Did Tal not consider moving over to Kahol Lavan after the merger? “That wouldn’t be very responsible for the person who is the representative of the Labor Party on this kibbutz,” he responds.

Shula Ofir, 74, also held the position of kibbutz secretary many years back. But unlike her two friends here, whom she suggests good-naturedly “should open their eyes,” she will be voting Kahol Lavan next week.

“I always voted Labor in the past,” she says, “but this time I feel that something big needs to be done – we need to defeat Netanyahu. You don’t do big things with small parties. If you want to do big things, you need a big party.”

Givat Brenner resident Shula Ofir. “You don’t do big things with small parties. If you want to do big things, you need a big party.”
Ilan Assayag

Personally, Ofir says, she doesn’t see a big difference between Kahol Lavan and Labor. “And neither am I scared of any orientation to the right that they may have,” she adds. “Right now, there are far more urgent concerns.”