Analysis |

Israel Election: Labor's Collapse Proves Liberal Zionism Is Facing an Existential Crisis

Israel's founding party made its poorest showing yet, while Meretz also lost one seat. The ideology that established Israel now has a very small following

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Avi Gabbay, head of Israel's Labor party, at the party's election event. April 9, 2019
Avi Gabbay, head of Israel's Labor party, at the party's election event. April 9, 2019Credit: David Bachar
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Aside from Kahol Lavan’s failure and the parties that dropped out of the Knesset entirely, the biggest loser on Election Night was undoubtedly Labor. The party whose forerunner founded Israel collapsed to only six seats, and it is nearly impossible to see Avi Gabbay holding on as party leader after such a result.

However, while Gabbay’s missteps — particularly early in his leadership — damaged the party, they were only a minor factor in Labor’s catastrophe. Gabbay is just the latest in a long line of unsuccessful leaders who failed to redefine Labor’s raison d’être. In this election it had an attractive slate of candidates, serious policies and a strong campaign. But it was nearly wiped out because its potential voters flocked to Kahol Lavan to try to remove Netanyahu from office.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 22Credit: Haaretz

To the left of Labor, Meretz held on, again, after putting out the usual distress signals that “Meretz must be saved.” It has lost one of its five seats, but almost certainly remains in the new Knesset. But its chronic problem of not being able to reach beyond its Tel Aviv comfort zone remains. Tamar Zandberg is another party leader who is unlikely to lead her party in the next election, whenever that happens.

With 10 seats and only 8 percent of the vote between them, the much diminished Labor and Meretz parties represent the existential crisis of left-wing Zionism — the ideology that established Israel and set it on a path to security and prosperity, but that now has a very small following. They have yet to come to terms with the failure of the Oslo process and the rise of the vaguely centrist parties: These may be short-term creations — like Kadima and Yesh Atid, and now probably Kahol Lavan — but they are much more attractive to voters.

Ehud Barak, the last Labor prime minister, left office 18 years ago and a return is not even on the horizon. Labor and Meretz need to work out a new narrative, perhaps together, and it can’t just be about replacing Netanyahu.

For a full breakdown of Israel's election results: How Netanyahu won the election

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