The contest for Labor Party leadership was once the most important battle of Israeli politics. Whether it took place in smoke-filled rooms, in the wider forum of Labor’s central committee, or, since 1992, in party-wide primaries, these were intense struggles which often decided who would be Israel’s next leader. The tussle between Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres over the role, which first began in 1974 and did not end until Rabin’s assassination in 1995, gripped the country for a generation.
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What a far fall from then to Sunday’s Labor leadership primaries, in which only 26 percent of the party’s membership – less than ten thousand people – voted. Merav Michaeli, a Knesset member since 2013, won it handily with 77 percent of the vote. She is the party’s tenth leader in twenty years, and that’s not counting those who have filled the role twice.
Welcome to the worst job in Israeli politics. The results don’t so much reflect Michaeli’s popularity – she ran against six virtually unknown candidates – but the fact that no other politician wants to be remembered as the leader under whose watch Labor failed to get into the Knesset altogether. In every single poll carried out in the last eleven months, with the sole exception of a poll that was published Sunday night, Labor fails to cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent.
If the polls weren’t bad enough, Michaeli has to contend with the internal resistance of the party’s other two Knesset members, who entered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition last year while she insisted on remaining in the opposition. Outgoing party leader and Economy Minister Amir Peretz has said he won’t run in this election, but has tried to manipulate the party machinery against Michaeli, forcing her to go all the way to the High Court to get an injunction for holding the primaries. Peretz’s partner, Social Affairs Minister Itzik Shmuli, is currently shopping around for another party. Michaeli is on her own. But with colleagues like these, that may be for the best.
Michaeli is clear-eyed about the scale of the task facing her. She insists that Labor remains not only “relevant,” but “genuinely essential.” But she knows that she has very little time to convince enough voters that is the case. The main problem is that the doubters are closest to home, and not just Peretz, Shmuli and other members of the old guard, who will continue to try and foil her plans. Now she has to escape the bear-hug of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, himself a former party member, who loves Labor so much, he wants to incorporate it into his month-old The Israelis party, which he says will be Israel’s “New Labor.”
Over the next twelve days, in the rapidly closing window until the February 4 deadline for filing a list of candidates with the Central Election Commission, Michaeli has to oversee Labor’s second primary for its own candidates, anxiously check the polling to work out what its independent chances are and skillfully negotiate mergers with other parties in which she doesn’t end up playing second fiddle to another leader.
Michaeli’s diagnosis of Labor’s decline is damning. She faults its leaders’ willingness to become ineffectual members of right-wing, or at best center-right, governments. Party leaders Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Amir Peretz and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer all agreed to serve under prime ministers of the center-right in return for their personal fiefdoms. Isaac Herzog and Avi Gabbay both negotiated coalition deals with Netanyahu.
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If Labor isn’t the party forming the government, it has to lead the opposition, insists Michaeli. Otherwise new parties like Kadima, Yesh Atid and Kahol Lavan will rise to replace it. She’s right, and proved last year that she wouldn’t readily join that trend. But now that so many previous leaders have fallen sway, can she reverse course before Labor goes under?
Another issue faced by both Michaeli and Huldai, as well as by Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, is the inescapable fact that they all belong to the same Ashkenazi Tel Aviv elite. That may not be a drawback. Her predecessor Amir Peretz came from a very different background and still failed miserably at making Labor connect with new audiences. Falling back on Labor’s old constituency is a viable strategy, if the Tel Aviv vote doesn’t become too divided, for this campaign. But it is not viable for the long term.
The problem is ultimately not a personal one. The long list of politicians who tried to restore Labor’s fortunes over the past two decades includes impressive individuals who had the potential to become leaders. They failed, not only due to their own shortcomings, but because of Labor’s historic failure to articulate what it stands for in an era where the right wing, and especially Netanyahu, have dominated the political discourse for so long.
Labor was once the responsible party, the party that had founded the state and built up its institutions. When Likud began winning elections in 1977 and proving that it could run Israel as well, even if not as well, Labor reincarnated itself as “the peace camp” with the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. But ever since the second intifada destroyed Olso’s promise over two decades ago, Labor hasn’t come up with a new role for itself. Even if Michaeli succeeds in ensuring that Labor survives this campaign and is represented in the next Knesset, it will still be light-years away from regaining its status as a party of power.
In 2008, Amos Oz said in an interview with Haaretz that “Labor is ending its historic role.” Since then, every Labor leader seems to have just proved Oz right. The weight of history is now on Michaeli to prove him wrong.