Analysis

Will Labor’s Vibrant Primary Be Remembered as Turning Point – or Gala on the Titanic?

Labor’s diverse Knesset list is to Likud’s all-Ashkenazi male makeup as U.S Democrats are to Republicans, more or less

Labor head Avi Gabbay and MK Itzik Shmuli, February 12, 2019
\ Moti Milrod

The Israeli Labor Party indicated on Monday night that reports of its death, as Mark Twain once said, were exaggerated. Labor members came out in droves to participate in the primary for the party’s Knesset list, surprising everyone with a demonstration of energy and even exuberance that stood in stark contrast to the party’s terrifying free fall in the polls and the widespread predictions of its imminent demise.

Labor hopes the jubilant atmosphere that prevailed at Tel Aviv’s Fairgrounds, where the party faithful gathered to hear the results and congratulate the winners, will be remembered as a turning point in its fortunes. If their critics are right, however, the festive night will probably end up being compared to a gala ball on the Titanic.

Israel Labour Party primary results, February 2019.
Haaretz

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Labor leader Avi Gabbay was buoyant with what seemed like his party’s glitch-free computerized primary, which contrasted with the growing allegations of widespread forgeries in last week’s Likud primary – which, by some miracle, all worked against those included in Benjamin Netanyahu’s enemies list.

Likud had touted its decision to stick with old-style voting with a paper slip as the perfect antidote against the trendy threat of external hacking, exposing itself to good old stuffing of ballots and manipulations of numbers instead. 

Labor also chose a Knesset list that, in terms of age, gender and ethnic composition, was the polar opposite of Likud’s, with the differences mirroring, grosso modo, those that differentiate Democrats from Republicans.

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Against the Likud’s top five, comprised exclusively of Ashkenazi men, none under 40, Labor is fielding two women – five in its top 10 – and three non-Ashkenazi males. Considering Likud’s overwhelming dominance in the polls, there is no small irony in the fact that Labor is still perceived as a bastion of the old Ashkenazi establishment, while Likud, despite looking like the spitting image of the GOP contingent on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is thought to be “the true voice of the people."

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay and lawmaker Amir Peretz celebrate the results of the party's primary, Tel Aviv, February 12, 2019.
\ Moti Milrod

Labor also positioned two up-and-coming politicians under 40 – Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir – in the one and two slots, marking, as my colleague Ravit Hecht notes, the main contenders in the future battle to succeed current leader Avi Gabbay. If the party doesn’t break out of its tailspin, the skirmishes could start as early as April 10.

Like Shmuli and Shaffir, most of Labor’s preferred candidates had proven track records as diligent and scrupulous parliamentarians, which is also true of the tragic hero of the night, Eitan Cabel.

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The fiery Cabel was dumped by his party to the currently unrealistic 15th spot in retribution for his brazen and open challenge to Gabbay at a party meeting last month, which included calling him a liar, challenging him to a lie detector test and calling for him to resign before it is too late.

In this regard, Likud voters showed more backbone: Netanyahu’s edict against his rival, Gideon Sa’ar, was met with overwhelming disobedience, while Laborites preferred to toe Gabbay’s line. Perhaps they figured he had enough on his hands as it is.

Labor’s list of top-notch parliamentarians is mostly identified with social and economic issues, which could allow the party to differentiate itself from Benny Gantz’s security-focused list; Gabbay believes Gantz’s failure to balance out his decidedly right-wing slate with sufficient leftists will soon send Labor voters back home anyway.

On the other hand, Labor’s slate lacks national security gravitas – with the exception of Peretz, whose brief sojourn as defense minister during the 2006 Second Lebanon War garnered mixed reviews. Gabbay is allowed to make a personal appointment to the party’s number two spot, right behind him, which he might use to fill the national-security void at Labor’s top. He could kill two birds with one stone, affirmative action-style, if his appointee happens to be an Ashkenazi man.

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Gabbay’s uninspiring speech on Monday did not rise to the unique occasion of Labor tapping unknown reserves of vim and vigor, but his position has been immeasurably strengthened following the primary.

His perceived triumph could stifle calls, which Gabbay opposes, for Labor to merge with Meretz to its left in order to save both from extinction.

Gabbay may presume not only that his tide will soon turn, but that when they compare Labor’s list to the one they are scheduled to select on Wednesday, Meretz voters could be enticed by Labor’s younger and hipper slate to cross the lines to Labor.

But the luster of Labor’s successful primary will soon fade, leaving Gabbay facing the same unpleasant realities as before. He can cannibalize Meretz and gain a few seats at its expense, perhaps, but has yet to find an antidote to the center-left’s yearning for an end to Netanyahu’s rule – and its willingness to vote for anyone who stands the best chance of achieving that goal.

Gabbay, who has repeatedly pronounced himself Netanyahu’s certain successor, even when the claim turned absurd, seemed to be coming down off his high horse on Monday. He promised his flock that Netanyahu would be defeated in the polls, but refrained from following up with his customary self-anointment as successor.

Perhaps that is a wise course for the leader of a party that started out as founding father and everlasting ruler, which finds itself fighting for its very life. Despite Monday’s hoopla, most Labor members are well aware that their best-case scenario is making it into double digits and the worst is oblivion.