Opinion

The Sorry Fate of Israel’s Historical Parties

Labor is spent, while Habayit Hayehudi is functioning as a sectoral party, with rabbis calling the shots

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay at a convention in Tel Aviv, January 23, 2018
\ Moti Milrod

The Labor Party, descendent of the Mapai party, is declining in the polls. Habayit Hayehudi – successor of the National Religious Party, another historical party that served as the incubator for religious Zionism – will have trouble passing the electoral threshold, the polls show.

The disappearance of historical – that is, ideological – parties began long before the current election campaign. To give two examples, Mapam and Achdut Ha’avoda, which by any standard are historical parties that share the credit for establishing the state and forging its character, have already disappeared, and no one knows where they went.

In the 71st year of the state’s existence, a significant number of voters are declaring that history has ended. The voters for the ephemeral trendy parties are evidence of this, and yes, even Likud voters.

There’s a significant difference, even a polar opposition, between the two old survivors. Despite Habayit Hayehudi’s expected contraction, the party’s unique strength has been growing steadily, and it now exerts significant influence in almost every field. It’s the ideological pathfinder for Likud, and not only Likud. As a result, it also determines that party’s course of action.

In contrast, Labor’s strength is spent. In recent decades, it has been abandoned because of the absence of both the ideological content and actions through which it achieved its status as the party that paved the way to statehood and shaped the state’s character.

Today, voters don’t understand what makes it unique on the political map, and people of national stature are no longer begging to join it. The absence of people of leadership stature, and especially people of ideological stature, has caused it to wither both ideologically and organizationally.

Paradoxically, Habayit Hayehudi reached its current shaky condition precisely because it has a great deal of what Labor lacks. Almost every party, old and new alike, is trying to put prominent religious Zionists on its ticket.

In the past, parties adorned themselves with thinkers and men of action from the Labor movement’s efforts to settle the land. Today, they are wooing social activists, settlement activists and members of the security forces who grew up in the religious-Zionist movement.

When the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria first began, the kibbutzniks of the Jezreel Valley and the Galilee taught members of the Gush Emunim movement how to establish a settlement. Today, Pinchas Wallerstein, Ze’ev Hever and their comrades are rehabilitating kibbutzim on the verge of being shut down and recruiting residents for them, while Amana, the settlement movement’s construction arm, is building their houses.

Whereas Labor lacks spiritual leadership, Habayit Hayehudi seems to suffer from an excess of it. But this excess, it turns out, is reserved for the party’s leaders, and that has been to the party’s detriment. Indeed, it’s one of the main reasons for Habayit Hayehudi’s contraction at the polls.

Today, rabbis are dictating the party’s policies, just like their colleagues in the ultra-Orthodox parties do. And their interests are also starting to be identical – funding hundreds of yeshivas, religious high schools and other institutions. In their view, this interest can be satisfied only if Habayit Hayehudi continues functioning as a sectoral party.

The party’s former leaders, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, sought to reduce the rabbis’ influence. When they failed, they left and set up a new party, Hayamin Hehadash. This party, judging by the polls, is attracting a significant portion of the religious-Zionist electorate.

Most of Habayit Hayehudi’s constituents have chosen to go out into the wider world and bring their messages and values – which aren’t necessarily those the rabbis dictate – to the general public. That’s why religious-Zionist voters are flocking to Likud and other parties. It’s not because of their political power (which hasn’t yet been proved) that Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz and other party leaders are putting religious Zionists on their tickets.

Even if Habayit Hayehudi manages to pass the electoral threshold this time around, there’s no doubt that its era has ended. Yair Sheleg, a scholar who studies religious-Zionist society, calls this “the paradox of success.”