Analysis

Israeli Labor Leader's Choice to Merge With Right-wing Lite Is Very Momentous Bet

Linkup between the Labor Party’s Amir Peretz and Orli Levi-Abekasis will benefit the two, but could hurt the left as a whole

Orli Levy-Abekasis and Amir Peretz as they announce the merger between Gesher and Labor, on Thursday, July 18, 2019.
Nir Keidar

In a highly unexpected move, which in the future will merit either a medal or a reprimand, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz announced on Thursday that he decided that his party would not be running on a joint slate in September’s Knesset election with Meretz or Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel party, but rather with Orli Levi-Abekasis’ Gesher party.

Gesher, which did not garner the minimum 3.25 percent of the vote for Knesset seats in April’s election, and would have slipped below two seats if there were no minimum, will be prominently represented on its joint slate with the Labor Party, with three candidates in the top 10 on the slate.

"We believe Amir," reads this Labor party poster in Tel Aviv, July 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum
Haaretz Weekly Ep. 34Haaretz

Levi-Abekasis herself will be No. 2 on the slate, right behind Peretz. And if Labor-Gesher is to join the next government, including one led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she will be second in seniority for a cabinet position after Peretz. This is a time for closure.

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Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, a social welfare activist who entered politics during Peretz’s first stint as Labor Party leader, is withdrawing from political life as an elected official. Now Levi-Abekasis, whose father, David Levy, joined Ehud Barak’s One Israel party in 1999, is linking up with Peretz. In opting to run with Gesher instead of the Meretz party, Peretz has undoubtedly made a major decision in the current election campaign.

Levi-Abekasis, who was previously a senior member of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, is seen as right-wing lite on the political spectrum. Her presence does a lot to buttress Labor’s social justice base, and given the limited success that the Labor Party has had in the recent past, she is likely to help it more than to hurt it.

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz votes at the party's primary elections, July 2019.
Moti Milrod

In linking up with Gesher, Peretz is clearly seeking to woo center-right voters. That includes members of the electorate looking for a new political home after Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party merged into Likud, and disappointed prior supporters of Kahol Lavan and voters who are more socially minded. Peretz’s move also pushes left-wing Ashkenazi candidates Stav Shaffir, Merav Michaeli and Omer Bar-Lev further down Labor’s slate. He did it deliberately, whatever grumbling they may make.

The risk in all this to the left wing is that if Meretz and Democratic Israel don’t run on a joint slate, one of them may not get the minimum 3.25 percent of the vote and thereby waste the votes of left-wing voters. What happened in April’s election on the right, which lost roughly six seats due to division in its ranks, could happen to the left this time around. And when one also takes into consideration the (so far) failed efforts to revive the Arab Joint List, the potential loss of votes on the left could be monumental. What days ago would have been considered an entirely unlikely scenario has now become the most likely – if not only –  prospect.

The left wing will be divided not into two but three entities. Meretz and Barak’s Democratic Israel are like oil and water, or tea and whiskey.

Opposition in Meretz to Barak amounts almost to a consensus so a joint slate between the two just isn’t in the cards. The personal alliance between Peretz and Levi-Abekasis prompts questions that only time will resolve. Neither is a particularly easy person. They are short-tempered and have well-developed egos, and there is the prospect for bickering down the line. She learned something about Peretz at Thursday’s news conference when he spoke on and on as she stood at his side, smiling, but also betraying her impatience.

When all is said and done, it should also be acknowledged that the Labor-Gesher alliance is natural and goes down easily, in contrast to the move made by former Gesher candidate Yifat Biton, who opted for Barak’s Democratic Israel, which looks like it is hanging by a thread in polls. That’s the price she is paying for waffling politically. In a competition over pathetic candidates,

Biton is the winner hands down, along with former Meretz member Avi Buskila and Labor’s Yair Fink, who also joined Barak’s new party.  Buskila and Fink are so-called ideologues, but they were willing to make their hostile, critical tweets about Barak a thing of the past, opting instead to slither over to his party for the increasingly fading chance at a Knesset seat.