Analysis |

Israel's Labor May Be Dying, but Netanyahu's Party Is Dead Inside

The Labor and Likud party primaries offered extraordinarily contrasting visions for Israel. The dwindling historic left celebrated diversity, while the Netanyahu cult worshiped slavish conformity

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the polling stations during the Likud primaries, Wednesday.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the polling stations during the Likud primaries, Wednesday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Back in June 2021, when the Bennett-Lapid government was about to be sworn in, newly-elected Knesset member Gilad Kariv was feverishly lobbying to be appointed as the minister for Diaspora Affairs, a position allotted to his party, Labor. Kariv argued that as a rabbi in Israel’s small Reform Judaism movement, he was the perfect candidate for the role of connecting Israel to Jews abroad.

Party leader Merav Michaeli refused, telling Kariv that, as a newcomer to the Knesset, he needed to spend time in the parliamentary trenches before aspiring to a cabinet position. It turned out to be a much better course for him.

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Kariv proved to be a conscientious MK, and was both effective and relatively prominent as chair of the Justice Committee, where he also served as a target for ultra-Orthodox politicians who were enraged at Kariv using his parliamentary immunity to smuggle a Torah scroll into the Western Wall plaza for the Women of the Wall's monthly Rosh Hodesh prayers. All this seems to have endeared him to Labor’s membership: In the party's primaries on Tuesday, they gave him the second-highest number of votes.

Lawmaker and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv at the announcement of the results of the Labor Party primaries on Tuesday.Credit: Moti Milrod

Kariv’s success could indicate new directions for the Israeli center-left, which has long paid lip service to pluralistic Judaism while in practice being happy to leave the whole Jewish thing to the ultra-Orthodox. If the most prominent representative today in Israel of Reform Judaism came second in the Labor primaries, doesn’t that mean that Kariv is the kind of rabbi secular Israelis want to see?

The result of Labor’s primaries is intriguing. The membership rejected the old type of politicians who were once so synonymous with Israel’s old party of power – relegating Internal Security Minister Omer Bar Lev to ninth spot and Nahman Shai (17th spot), the closest thing the party still has to bitchonistim (national security) types, and elevating new civilian-minded (and civil society-minded) candidates.

Naama Lazimi, the 36 year-old who won the top spot, is not the kind of person you would have expected heading a Labor slate. A young Mizrahi activist who grew up in the Likud stronghold of Migdal Ha’Emek, Lazimi, unlike many of her colleagues, actually understands and is passionate about social democratic policies. In the year she has spent thus far in the Knesset, her main campaigning revolved around raising the minimum wage. Some may even think that this is Labor finally getting serious about reaching out beyond its secular Ashkenazi Tel Aviv comfort zone.

Lawmaker Naama Lazimi during the announcement of the results of the Labor Party's primaries, Tel Aviv, Tuesday.Credit: Moti Milrod

But that’s far from clear. There seems to be a bit of a dissonance within the party leadership over what Labor currently stands for. Three weeks ago its leader, Michaeli, was re-elected with 82 percent of the vote, the first Labor leader to serve two consecutive terms since Shimon Peres back in the 1980s.

According to Haaretz’s political analyst Yossi Verter, Michaeli didn’t exactly put her weight as leader behind Lazimi or Kariv; she was much more enthusiastic about pushing the candidates who came next – Efrat Rayten and Ram Shefa. Like Kariv and Lazimi, they are also first-term Knesset members but, unlike them, are much more typical of Michaeli’s Labor – Rayten, a successful Tel Aviv lawyer with an earlier career in acting and broadcasting and Shefa, a kibbutz member and dynamic student activist, who had started his political life just three years ago in centrist Kahol Lavan, before moving over to Labor.

It's as if Labor has ditched one personality by getting rid of the senior officers and is now undecided on what its new character is to be.

Is it going to stick with what’s left of its dwindling urban, secular and Tel Avivian persona, represented by Michaeli and Rayten, most of which has moved over to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid? Or is it prepared to strike out for new brave territory, personified by candidates like Lazimi, Kariv and Yair Fink, a modern Orthodox activist who won the seventh spot, as well as inspiring female candidates like Arab Israeli MK Ibtisam Maraana and Ethiopian-Israeli activist Maharata Baruch, who also got into the top ten?

The bigger question, though, is: Does it even matter? This is after all Labor, a party which in the polls is barely crossing the electoral threshold. A party which we wouldn’t be paying much attention to if it hadn’t been Israel’s founding political movement. After all, what does is matter whom a tiny proportion of Israelis, 22,679 Labor members, choose to be their Knesset candidates?

Labor’s slate would be an exciting cross-section of Israeli society if it had any prospect of leading Israel in the foreseeable future, rather its more likely immediate future of, at best, being a junior coalition member, or, as is reasonably likely, languishing on the opposition backbenches. Perhaps if Labor had gone down this route a decade or two ago, putting together a youngish list of candidates representing both the media-savvy Tel Aviv types and the more diverse social, religious and geographic communities, the party could have reversed its decline. By now, it may well be too late.

It isn’t too late for Likud, however. 24 hours after the Labor primaries, it was Likud’s turn to go and elect their candidates. The top team of Israel’s largest party, who (in three months) may well the senior ministers of yet another Netanyahu government, have absolutely no vision or policy, beyond doing whatever it takes to shield their beloved leader. They'd have no compunctions dismantling Israel’s legal system, if that’s what is needed.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at a polling station for the Likud primaries, Wednesday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Not all of them are even true Likudniks. Yariv Levin, the dour lawyer who won the top spot is, but the two who came in after him, Eli Cohen and Yoav Galant, were still members of Kulanu, the now defunct center-right party which was somehow supposed to be a new Likud, just four years ago. Cohen and Galant won two of the three top spots by proving to Likud members that they were even more loyal to Netanyahu than veteran Likudniks.

The same is true of Yoav Kish who, just a couple of years ago, managed Gideon Saar’s failed Likud leadership campaign but, the moment it was over, pledged total allegiance to Netanyahu and came this week sixth in the primaries. All that matters is how loyal you are right now.

No other analysis of Likud is needed. Anyone who showed even the slightest potential to challenge Netanyahu, figures like Nir Barkat, Yisrael Katz and Yuli Edelstein, got pushed down the list or even off it altogether, like Tzahi Hanegbi. That is Likud’s vision for Israel: Slavish loyalty to the leader who "embodies the nation’s spirit" and therefore should stand above any legal or moral jeopardies.

If Labor’s historic role is over, as Amos Oz predicted ten years ago, its last loyalists can at least console themselves that their last act was to elect a vision of a better, more hopeful Israeli society, rather than the stale grey male future chosen by members of the Likud.

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