Opinion

Save the Israeli Labor Party. It Deserves It

Chairman Avi Gabbay is incapable and must go, but others — should they stop being paralyzed by the approaching disaster — just might be able to win back voters

Avi Gabbay at a press conference in Jerusalem, December 24, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

One can only rub one's eyes in disbelief at the sight of two recent performances. In the first, the prime minister acted like a gangster clinging to safety with the last of his strength, begging his “soldiers” to save him from the long arm of the law. In the second, the Labor Party risks disappearing as it slides in the polls and approaches the electoral threshold.

The first performance must swiftly come to its inevitable conclusion, in which Benjamin Netanyahu understands that his reign is ending in disgrace, just as it began with the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But we must try to prevent the second if at all possible.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 11Haaretz

>> How Israel's grandest political party can save itself from destruction | Analysis

Trends show that most voters are presumably willing to close the book on the movement that established the state. Perhaps this is an inevitable historical development. The Social Democrats in Germany, the Labour Party in Britain and the moderate left in France have also been in steady retreat; Israel merely preceded most of these other Western countries.

Though there are significant historical reasons for this process that must be understood, right now we are facing an emergency. Labor, as a central movement that always presented society with a model of positive principles of high humanist and social values, needs and deserves to be rescued.

Since no other political actor — with the possible exception of Meretz, which is even farther from the political consensus than Labor — wants any connection with this sinking ship, it would be wrong for the party to continue as if nothing had happened and sail straight into the iceberg. The ongoing process of its abandonment by the voters makes a redeployment necessary.

Yet despite this realistic assessment, Eitan Cabel seems to be the only Labor Knesset member who isn’t paralyzed by the approaching disaster, and is instead crying out for an immediate change of course.

Granted, there are many reasons for Labor’s collapse, and it’s clear that party chairman Avi Gabbay isn’t solely to blame for the bitter results. But his public exorcism of Tzipi Livni suffices to show that he doesn’t understand the political reality and isn’t capable of saving the party.

Assuming that no serious political actor wants to dig his own grave by joining Labor even if Gabbay were to vacate the party leadership, the only way to stop Labor from continuing to hemorrhage votes may be an internal revolt that would place a key figure from within the party at the head of the ticket — someone the public identifies with both social issues and the party’s character. Gabbay doesn’t meet either of these criteria.

The goal of such a move is clear. Ten and perhaps even 12 Knesset seats’ worth of voters regularly cast their ballots for someone who promises to deal primarily with social issues. All the people planning to vote for Orli Levi-Abekasis’ new Gesher party, and most of the people who vote for Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, come not from the right but from Labor’s former electorate. Their return home could restore the party to a double-digit number of Knesset seats.

If Labor were to put at the top of its slate a familiar figure who is clearly identified with social issues — someone like MK Shelly Yacimovich or MK Itzik Shmuli —– it might manage to win back a significant portion of Levi-Abekasis’ and Kahlon’s voters. Both of their parties are also hovering just above the electoral threshold, so there’s a chance voters would consider returning to Labor if the party proves it’s willing to accept their order of priorities.

What failed when Labor sought to appeal to the entire public could serve now as a narrowly focused lifeline. This would be a dramatic decision, one that would foment a crisis. But it might at least allow Labor to avoid sinking beneath the waves.