On Eve of Existential Election, Israel’s Center-left Is on the Verge of Implosion

Peretz's merger with center-rightist Levi-Abekasis has enraged Labor’s base and could consign it to the dustbin of history, much to Netanyahu’s delight

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Orli Levi-Abekasis and Amir Peretz, July 18, 2019.
Orli Levi-Abekasis and Amir Peretz, July 18, 2019. Credit: Nir Keidar
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The final deadline for Israel’s political parties to submit their lists of Knesset candidates for the September 17 election is in ten days. Center-left voters and their leaders depict the election as crucial, vital and even existential. Benjamin Netanyahu’s reelection, they claim, could spell the end of Israel’s liberal democracy, as we’ve known it.

Nonetheless, as the clock nears midnight, the center-left is on the brink of implosion. The intensity of its aversion to continued Netanyahu rule is eclipsed only by the inability of its leaders to stand one another or work together. Barring a last minute Hail Mary or deus ex-machina, election that seemed eminently winnable for Netanyahu’s opponents could turn out to be their final Waterloo.

The mainstay of the camp, Kahol Lavan, is plagued by internal bickering and demoralized, perhaps shortsightedly, by the seeming timidity of its leader, Benny Gantz. Ehud Barak’s decision to join the fray hasn’t yielded the big bang that he and many analysts expected and his party Democratic Israel is now hovering dangerously close to the 3.25 percent threshold needed to gain entry into Israel’s parliament. The four main Arab parties, despite their clear understanding that united they’ll stand but divided they’ll fall and take hopes of ousting Netanyahu with them, are stymied by their own self-serving and competing demands for higher personal placements on a unified list.

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All of this was bad enough before Thursday’s shock announcement by newly-elected Labor Party leader Amir Peretz that he had recruited center-right social firebrand Orli Levi-Abekasis to join Labor and was allotting her party Gesher, which fell short of the threshold in the April 9 ballot, three seats in Labor’s top ten. Worse, both Levi-Abekasis and Peretz fumbled and stumbled on the issue that is uppermost in their constituencies’ mind: Would they or wouldn’t they participate in a Netanyahu government, effectively stealing center-left votes and handing them over to Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition.

Peretz may have thought that his union with Levi-Abekasis was a stroke of genius that would reshuffle Israeli politics and shift moderate right-wing voters, especially North Africans in development towns, to a recalibrated Labor focused on social equality and led by two politicians of Moroccan origins. What he failed to take into account was that his last-minute realignment of Labor could alienate the party’s own electoral base, sending many of its members packing to seek alternatives and possibly precipitate the collapse of Labor itself.

Based on my own informal and unscientific poll of center-left voters I happened to encounter over the weekend at a wedding, the anger at Peretz is palpable and the flight from Labor is going strong. All of those who voted Labor in the last elections or were deliberating whether to vote for it in the next said they were reconsidering; most declared their divorce from Labor to be final.

Some of the objections to Peretz’s move, concocted clandestinely in back rooms and without prior consultation with other Labor leaders, stem from Levi-Abekasis’s political history with Avigdor Lieberman and her support for some of the ultra-nationalistic laws passed by the Knesset. Others ascribe the antagonism toward the Peretz-Levi-Abekasis union to the inherent racism of Labor’s predominantly Ashkenazi voters, who could barely stomach being led by one Moroccan, let alone two. If Labor sinks in upcoming polls, this rationale is bound to be adopted by many of Levi-Abekasis and Peretz's supporters, pouring the high-octane fuel of ethnic tensions on a fire that’s already getting out of control.

In a worst-case scenario, and if things stay as they are, all three parties to the left of Kahol Lavan  – Labor, Meretz and Barak’s Democratic Israel – could fall short of the 3.25 percent threshold. What was once considered a golden opportunity to reverse the results of the April 9 elections – especially after Lieberman decided to declare independence and abandon his automatic support for Netanyahu and the right – has now been supplanted by dread of a total rout that could decimate the center-left and designate the Labor Party and its illustrious past to the dustbin of history.

Cup-half-full types might point to similar disarray among Likud’s national-religious satellites on the right. Even after Sunday’s announcement that Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett were back together after a trial separation – with Shaked on top this time around - the fate of their Hayamin Hehadash (The New Right) still hangs in the balance, with talks ongoing about a possible merger with Habayit Hayehudi to their right.

Netanyahu doesn’t seem too happy about a Shaked takeover of the entire religious right. A merger between Habayit Hayehudi and Hayamin Hehadash that will anoint the popular Shaked as leader of a big bad nationalist bloc could tempt traditional Likud voters who have tired of the prime minister’s alleged corruption or who view him as “too soft” on peace and territories. The prime minister’s fears are compounded by the fact that his wife Sara detests Shaked and views her as a mortal enemy, never mind the threat Shaked poses to her husband’s future career. Suffice to say that in such a scenario, Netanyahu’s troubles with his future coalition will pale in comparison to the tantrums he will endure at home.

And just as he did just before the previous ballot three months ago, Netanyahu is once again engaged in koshering the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit and using his influence to re-broker its inclusion in Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset list. Theoretically, at least, Netanyahu is also facing the specter of parties to his right failing to meet the threshold – as  Bennett-Shaked's Hayamin Hehadash did on April 9 – thus squandering hundreds of thousands of votes and crippling his chances of returning to the prime minister’s office.

Nonetheless, the left-right analogy is specious, mainly because the linchpin of the right, the Likud, is strong and united behind Netanyahu, out of sincere admiration or outright fear or both. Even if his personal worst-case scenario is borne out and Netanyahu is toppled because his allies didn’t pass the threshold, the Likud is sure to remain a strong and vibrant political entity, with hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic supporters. It will live to fight another day, and probably triumph soon after.

The left, on the other hand, could be facing total annihilation. Its leaders are egotistical enough and hate each other with a vengeance powerful enough to block collaboration, even at the risk of their own demise. Kahol Lavan, after all, is just a skeleton creature of convenience, fueled by the center left’s desperation to oust Netanyahu and bound to split apart if it fails and is faced with four years of tedious opposition.

Labor, according to its crushed supporters, has been hijacked by Peretz and Levi-Abekasis. Barak, whose past associations with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein have overshadowed his comeback efforts, could soon fade away, as old soldiers do. Meretz is also considering possible last-minute mergers, but even in a best-case scenario, will remain a marginal player in the overall array. And if the Arabs fail to unite, as their voters demand, their already reduced representation in the Knesset could fall to an all-time low.

Nonetheless, there are still ten days left, which, in Israeli politics, is near eternity. Barak could actually recuperate from his current doldrums by attracting disappointed Labor voters and, more dramatically, by recruiting some of Labor’s bright young stars, including the popular Knesset member Stav Shaffir. The Arab parties could see the light at the very last minute and unite, despite their differences, failing which Meretz might consider a truly historic and pioneering venture by setting up a first-ever Jewish-Arab joint list with the former communist party Hadash.

But as things stand now, history will record that when faced with what its leaders describe as a do-or-die vote on Israel’s future, the center-left succumbed to vanity, ego, purism, dogmatism and political ploys gone wrong, such as the Peretz-Levi-Abekasis merger. History won’t forgive them, especially since, as a direct result of their own reckless shortsightedness, it will be written by Netanyahu and his adoring minions.