Israel's Labor Party Seeks New Direction, Meretz Optimistic After Joining Barak

Union between Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel, Meretz and former Labor MK Stav Shaffir has left Labor members confused, angry and worried for the party’s future

Horowitz, Shaffir, Barak and at the Democratic Union party launch, July 25, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

Labor Party activists woke up to a new reality last week, one in which they are no longer the main pillar of the left.

The union between Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel, Meretz and former Labor MK Stav Shaffir has left many of them confused, angry and mainly worried about their party’s future.

“There is a sense of uncertainty – I was very active during the last election campaign, but now I feel that something has been extinguished, that no energy is left,” says Yehuda Pinsker from Moshav Yogev in the north and a member of the party’s central committee.

“No one is saving the party from drowning – instead, some people are continuing with nonsense and personal interests, with others fleeing as if this were a sinking ship.”

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The highest-profile ship jumper is Shaffir, who for weeks prided herself on being Labor leader Amir Peretz’s right-hand woman. Now she has orchestrated the creation of Democratic Union with Barak and Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz. The fact that Peretz preferred linking up with Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party over Barak and Meretz is contributing to criticism within Labor.

In the end, a tie-up among parties considered natural partners never happened. Some sources say that while Levi-Abekasis may share a social-issues agenda with Peretz, she is far from sharing his vision regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Despite the frustration, some Labor Party members say they are happy with the current situation, expressing confidence in their leader. They’re not yet ready for a knight of the long knives.

Amir Peretz celebrates after winning the Labor primary, July 9, 2019.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“There’s a real risk that we won’t pass the electoral threshold,” says Meirav Barkai from Kibbutz Be’eri in the south, a party activist for the last 15 years. “For me, it would be catastrophic if Labor were wiped out.”

She says one reason the party has reached this point is “the constant criticism of every move the chairman makes, with people undermining him, trying to take a parallel course. Peretz was elected and I will remain his soldier to the end.”

It has been 51 years since the Labor Party was formed out of Mapai and other parties. Labor has been on the wane for years. It has tried to retain a comprehensive set of values without becoming a niche party, while reaching a consensus despite a wide diversity of opinions.

Yuli Tamir, a former education minister, says she would be happy to see Labor join the new union that has formed on the left.

“An undesirable division has arisen between a left focused on economic issues and a left dealing with issues of democracy and a diplomatic resolution to the conflict,” she says, referring to the conflict with the Palestinians. This division is unseemly, and it would be better for all sides to join forces.”

Hilik Bar, a former Labor secretary general, is currently the party’s chief for political and international affairs and a Peretz supporter. He says he’s happy about the formation of Democratic Union, claiming that this will prevent the loss of votes; parties won’t fall below the 3.25 percent electoral threshold.

But he regrets that his good friend Shaffir has left the party. “She received much support and love from the party, and history proves that in the long run it doesn’t pay to leave one’s party,” Bar says.

Bar is bullish about the union between Peretz and Levi-Abekasis. “This was one of the correct and important things to happen in our bloc,” he says.

Levi-Abekasis and Peretz announce their joint-run, July 18, 2019.
Nir Keidar

“This gives some hope of breaking down the traditional barriers among political blocs in Israel, providing a chance for change by winning enough votes to unseat [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and leaving the opposition we’ve grown accustomed to.”

Bar is furious at the criticism voiced at the tie-up between Peretz and Levi-Abekasis. “Look at what these two giants have done so far. Single mothers and young couples saddled with a heavy burden – that’s not a niche party; the elderly and Holocaust survivors in Israel – that’s not a niche; almost a million children under the poverty line – that’s not a niche item; the insane cost of living, the racism, the violence – those aren’t niche issues,” he says.

“These are the things on which the delicate web Israel is based on will stand or fall. This is the flag around which the center-left is grouped. Unlike all kinds of ostensible leaders or people taking charge using Twitter, these two have shown that they can change things.”

Former Labor MK Eitan Cabel directs his barbs at Barak. “More than Meretz wanted Ehud Barak, he imposed himself on them. That was the only way he could save himself,” Cabel says.

“He came out trumpeting the need to replace Netanyahu, but surveys showed him barely crossing the threshold. Ultimately, the two sides are very dissimilar. He’s an inveterate capitalist, let alone his sins in the turmoil of 2000” – when Arab demonstrators were killed when Barak was prime minister.

Cabel says Peretz did not ask for his opinion, but he supports the link-up with Levi-Abekasis. “Orli would be great as No. 2, but I think he erred when he gave her two more slots in the first 10 on the ticket, making it difficult to join anyone else,” Cabel says. “But that’s behind us, it’s not the story. I say that Labor would have lost three seats if it had joined with Meretz.”

After many years of their party losing popularity, many Meretz supporters welcome the union with Shaffir and Barak. The day their party announced the deal with Barak’s new party, Meretz veterans sounded optimistic.

“That’s what’s required now,” said one of them a few hours after the establishment of Democratic Union. Others said that for the sake of replacing the government they were willing to plug their noses and ears.

Stav Shaffir, Nitzan Horowitz and Ehud Barak launch election campaign for Democratic Union.
Tomer Appelbaum

The alleged bitter pill called Barak can apparently be swallowed by many Meretz supporters, largely because he agreed to take the modest 10th spot on the new party’s slate.

“A union between Barak and Meretz looks unnatural, but the fact that he’s not topping the list makes this more acceptable,” says Haim Oron, a former Meretz chairman.

On Friday, Barak said that even in the 10th slot he will make it into the Knesset, and opinion polls by television stations back his forecast, giving Democratic Union between 10 and 12 seats.

Opposition to the tie-up with Barak has also come from the Arab community, with which Meretz has been trying to tighten its links since the last election. Some people warn that the party will be unable to repeat its achievements in this community, which gave Meretz 40,000 votes last April.

According to party leaders, this is what prevented Meretz from falling under the electoral threshold, but it’s not clear that as many Arab voters will choose Meretz this time around.

“It’s logical on the tactical level, but the price will be high in the Arab community,” says Elias Matanes, a former deputy mayor of Haifa for Meretz. He notes that Barak apologized for the killing of Arab demonstrators in October 2000, “but Arab voters know that this was an apology made for electoral purposes.”

Aaed Bader, secretary of the Meretz branch in Kafr Qasem and the director of the party’s Arab-community campaign headquarters, says Barak has learned lessons from the past. “Before his apology I found it very difficult to market him,” Bader says. “But he signed the Meretz platform, and if we want to change the government we need to move on.”

Attorney Omaima Hamed, a senior Meretz official in Nazareth, also understands the move but has her reservations. “If you want to increase the left’s chances, obviously it’s the right decision,” she says. “But this will hurt the Arab community within Meretz and affect voters who chose the party last time but will protest the combined list.”

The new party’s plans and the makeup of its ticket – which has not been put together – are also worrying Jewish voters. “What’s important is to gather people who believe in the liberal voice in Israel, allowing them to express it,” says activist Reut Nagar. She doesn’t know yet how to relate to their new partner’s ties with Jeffrey Epstein.

“I respect what Barak has done in the past, but we don’t have enough information on this matter and it’s correct to understand exactly what happened. Everything is so vague,” she says.

Party member Avi Dabush believes that the party merger was a mistake. “What’s the big celebration? So we get seven or eight seats? That’s not what will achieve a turnaround,” he says.

“The big challenge facing the left is to link with the country’s outskirts, and the left is repeatedly avoiding that. I don’t accept the criticism hurled at Peretz. He’s moving in the right direction, and I think Meretz should have been part of this.”

Uri Alder, a veteran Meretz member, says that party supporters should remember that the union they’ve just learned about doesn’t have to be permanent.

“It’s a technical bloc, and the day after the election Meretz can say goodbye to Barak,” he says. “For three or four elections we’ve been hovering around the threshold, and you have to be realistic.”