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January 26, 2021 5:09 am

The Tragic End of Israel’s Labor Party

avatar by Ori Wertman


A general view shows the plenum at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, May 29, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Ronen Zvulun.

The Labor Party, the party that established the State of Israel, has reached its tragic end.

These are sad days for the Israeli political system, in which the Labor Party had a prominent role. The elders of Mapai, those who are still alive of course, still indulge in the memories of the absolute rule of Labor headed by David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and Golda Meir. Younger ones still remember the good old days when the Rabin-Peres duo led the Labor Party for two decades, and how Ehud Barak defeated Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1999 elections and seized power. But today, compared to its glorious past, the Labor Party at best receives 1.5% in polls, a figure that leaves it for the first time in history outside the Knesset.

Many arguments exist in the political discourse for the collapse of the Labor Party. Two of them are very well known: the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians, and the addiction to participating in right-wing governments. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the crash of the Oslo peace process and the outbreak of the Second Intifada did not benefit the Labor Party, which had raised the peace process with the Palestinians and the idea of a two-state solution to the top of its agenda. In fact, the collapse of the peace process symbolized the failure of the political line taken by Labor leaders since the early 1990s, according to which the only partner in resolving the Palestinian issue is the PLO. On the other hand, the Labor Party is indeed addicted to sitting in government. The inability to sit on the benches of the opposition has apparently prevented it, over the years, from being a governmental alternative to right-wing rule.

Yet in practice, neither the failure of the Oslo process nor the inability to sit in opposition led to the collapse of the Labor Party.

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First, even after the failure of the Oslo process, the Labor Party marked electoral achievements. Only six years ago, in the 2015 elections, until the last minute, it seemed that Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog would be the next prime minister. Although Herzog did not form the government, his party won 24 seats, a huge achievement for the Labor Party in the 21st century.

Second, sitting on opposition benches does not automatically guarantee rule. Sometimes, the opposite is true. After the 2009 elections, Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, won 28 seats and proudly went to the opposition. But in the next election, in 2013, the party finished the race with only two seats and disappeared from the political landscape.

In contrast, the Labor Party in the 1980s sat most of the time around the cabinet table, and still managed to obtain significant electoral achievements, including the upheaval in the 1992 election. In this context, the Likud Party led by Netanyahu has headed the coalition since 2009, winning the election five times in a row (and according to current polls, it seems that the sixth time is on the way).

Ultimately, there are two main reasons for the collapse of Labor. The first reason is related to the split in the center-left camp, in the form of the establishment of “center” parties, which led to the erosion of the electoral power of Labor. While in the 1992 election, in which Labor led by Rabin won 44 seats and was the only party located between Likud and Meretz, over the years, a variety of atmosphere parties were formed that “drank” traditional Labor voters. Thus, all the centrist parties that arose and crashed, from Shinui led by Yosef “Tommy” Lapid to Blue and White led by Benny Gantz, were all in fact mainly based on the same typical Labor voters.

However, there is another reason that may be the main one for the collapse of the Labor Party. Despite its historic brand, the Labor Party has now become a hot potato that no serious public figure is willing to touch. After bringing the party to an electoral catastrophe of zero seats, Amir Peretz tried to find a well-known figure who would lead the Labor Party above the threshold. In fact, Peretz offered a political party on a silver platter to anyone who wished to lead it. But none of the figures he addressed, from Amos Yadlin to Ehud Barak, wanted to put himself in a party whose main occupation comes down to convening its conference and holding a members census.

In conclusion, the Labor Party was once an ideological party that often decided the fate of the State of Israel. Today, it is a tiny party with inflated institutions, but without voters and without any political content. The bitter fact is that, in its current state, the Labor Party is dying, and is really impossible to save any longer. Let it die respectfully, before it is disgraced in the upcoming election with no seats in the Knesset.

Ori Wertman is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the International Centre for Policing and Security at the University of South Wales, UK and an Adjunct Researcher at the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa, Israel. He was a foreign affairs and political adviser to former Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog, former deputy chairman of the Labor Party Youth, and was a candidate on the Labor Knesset list.

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