Opinion

Israel's Labor Party Lost in the Wilderness

The party that built the state, the left’s flagship, the political home that’s supposed to be an alternative to Netanyahu and the extreme right, looks desolate, abandoned and evil smelling

Avi Gabbay at the Herzliya Conference, May 10, 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

What the hell is happening with the Labor Party? The new MK Robert Tiviaev receives “an important telephone call” and causes the opposition to lose a vote his fellow party member submitted; MK Hilik Bar is busy forging Israel’s diplomatic relations in China at a time every voting opposition hand can topple the fragile coalition. Meanwhile, party chairman Avi Gabbay continues to bicker with his party members, who are petitioning their colleagues against his plans to reserve slots on the list.

How did a man like Tiviaev, a former member of Yisrael Beiteinu and Kadima (and who received 1,097 votes in Labor’s primary in 2015), become the largest opposition party’s crucial vote? Tiviaev, who wants to quit the Zionist Union anyway, is a classic Ephraim Kishon-style example of what happens in local politics every day, but he is also another symptom of Labor’s loss of direction.

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The party that built the state, the left’s flagship, the political home that’s supposed to be an alternative to the horrific regime set up by Benjamin Netanyahu and the extreme right, looks like Atarim Square on Tel Aviv’s shoreline: Desolate, abandoned and evil smelling, while standing on one of Israel’s most valuable pieces of real estate. Why can’t Labor get off the ground?

Ehud Barak in his first term (1999-2001) was Labor’s last significant leader, and he too damaged the party severely later on, after stripping it of some of his loyalists to sit in Netanyahu’s second government. His retirement after losing in the 2001 election doomed the rest of Labor’s leaders to a shaky, back-stabbing future, ending with its removal from office. The party simply lost faith in itself and its leaders.

Add to this acute problem the confusion of the entire Zionist left since the second Intifada and the collapse of Oslo’s hopes. The Zionist left, with Labor in its ranks, can serve as a vital alternative only to Miri Regev’s culture-loyalty bill or David Amsalem’s recommendations’ law, designed to protect the prime minister in criminal investigations. The Zionist left has difficulty advancing the idea of ending the occupation and forging peace because it isn’t sure of it itself, and is afraid the public won’t buy it.

At this point one must admit that Gabbay himself, who of course isn’t responsible for Labor’s historic ills, is another symptom of its loss of a way forward. Gabbay, who was elected as a refreshing new start, indeed made almost every possible mistake - he tried to swerve right and then returned left, plunged into power struggles over party institutions and didn’t stop quarreling with Labor members - but in retrospect it turns out that his election was by itself a frantic, illogical move, a cosmetic trick employed out of despair. (I too wrote on the eve of the Labor leadership elections that Gabbay was a gamble worth taking.)

Gabbay is not a leftist, and apparently isn’t made of leadership material either, because he cannot control even his own party’s MKs. It’s hard to see in him any similarity to Netanyahu, who lifted Likud from the ruins after its 12-Knesset-seat disaster in 2006, and has since settled in as ruler of Israel.

Is Labor stubbornly heading toward its end? Perhaps that’s where nature is leading and there’s no point in flogging a dead horse. Perhaps Labor’s collapse would do the left good and finally produce a real opposition that can change the radical course Israel is hurtling down.

But Labor’s solid base of support – worth about 10 Knesset seats, the number the polls have been giving it for a long time – is still not something to be taken lightly. The party still has potential. The kind demonstrated in the last elections, in which the Zionist Union won 24 Knesset seats, and the kind reflected in the polls, where figures like Benny Gantz win exaggerated rates of support.

Labor’s traditional constituency is still alive and is demanding representation. Even more: It has been searching for a leader high and low for years.