Israeli Labor Party's Primary Heralds a Democratic Awakening

The battle to lead Labor – reports of whose death were premature – proved that the party has innovative forces and has managed to maintain a vibrant and dynamic democratic apparatus

Illustration: Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay, two Mizrahi candidates of Moroccan origin, prove that Israel's Labor Party is attentive to criticism
Amos Biderman

After months of an energetic and vigorous campaign for the Labor Party leadership, featuring a large group of serious and impressive candidates, party members chose Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay to compete for the party chairmanship in next Monday’s second and decisive round of voting.

The battle to lead Labor – reports of whose death were premature – proved that the party has innovative forces and has managed to maintain a vibrant and dynamic democratic apparatus. Moreover, the choice of two Mizrahi candidates (both are of Moroccan origin) over three “Ashkenazi princes” is proof that the party is attentive to criticism, can learn from its mistakes, and seeks to correct and change things. For all this, the party deserves praise.

Labor members ousted the party’s chairman, Isaac Herzog. Though he was opposition leader, Herzog never seemed satisfied with being in the opposition. It was clear he was determined to broaden the camp he led, which is why he joined up with Tzipi Livni and her Hatnuah party. But he was also determined to create a common denominator that would enable Zionist Union, the alliance he headed, to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Herzog believed in the possibility of changing things from within, and that the very presence of Zionist Union in the governing coalition would be enough to halt the country’s slide. He was also convinced that such a coalition could be a partner to a regional agreement, about which the public heard rumors.

Labor members on Tuesday rejected that approach. Their choice makes clear that they don’t believe in the sincerity of Netanyahu’s intentions, and that Herzog demonstrated political naveté in trying to forge a connection with him. Their choice also made it clear they want a strong opposition to the Netanyahu government, in order to fashion a new direction for the State of Israel according to their worldview.

The Labor primary can also teach something to its natural partner in the opposition, and perhaps in a future government – the Meretz party. To be relevant and increase its public support, Meretz ought to accept Chairwoman Zehava Galon’s proposal to change the party’s electoral process and hold open primaries for the Knesset slate and party leader. The method used by Meretz, in which the party congress chooses the Knesset slate, blocks renewal and change; it’s essentially a large political arrangements committee.

The Meretz party convention recently rejected Galon’s proposal. But after the party chooses a new party congress in a few months, it would do well to reconsider. It’s the only way Meretz can stop hovering around the electoral threshold (3.25 percent of the overall vote) and make a move that will allow voters from varied population groups to become part of it.

If Meretz and Labor become vibrant parties, infused with a mission and democratic in their message and internal structure, they could be the key to changing Israel’s political map.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.