Israel’s Foundering Labor Party Sets Off On New Path
March elections could spell death for one of the country’s most established political parties, which has elected Merav Michaeli as its new head.
One of the nation’s most well-known and established parties, which in recent years has suffered unparalleled turmoil, held its primary elections, hoping to infuse new blood in the aging political body.
The Labor party and its forerunners, which in the years leading up to Israel’s inception and for decades after its formation ruled the country nearly single handedly, on Sunday elected a new chairwoman, Knesset lawmaker Merav Michaeli, who promises to revive the movement.
“We will save our Labor party, and return it to its rightful place, center stage,” Michaeli, who took 77 percent of the votes cast by only 26 percent of Labor party members, promised Sunday. “We will put truth back in politics.”
Israelis will go to the polls for the fourth time in two years on March 23.
After years of wilting away on the opposition benches, outgoing party chairman Amir Peretz’s decision to join Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government last May, despite his explicit promise to the contrary, may have put the final nail in the Labor party coffin.
The latest opinion polls show Labor garnering less than the minimum four seats required to qualify to enter the parliament.
“Every good thing must come to an end. If the party doesn’t know how to reinvent itself, it’s destined to die,” Eitan Cabel, one of Labor’s most prominent members since the mid-90s, who left politics last year, told The Media Line. “I’m still a registered member of the party, but I didn’t vote today.”
The last time Labor was a meaningful force in government was in former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition of 2006. The last prime minister to come out of the party, which has produced such statesmen as David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, was Ehud Barak in 1999.
Every good thing must come to an end. If the party doesn’t know how to reinvent itself, it’s destined to die
Yet, some former Labor lawmakers insist the party can be salvaged, noting that while its seats in parliament have indeed dwindled, its voters are still around.
“With the right leadership, Blue and White wouldn’t exist today, it would be redundant,” a former Labor lawmaker who served in the Knesset over the past five years told The Media Line, referring to alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz’s party, which won over 30 seats in each of the three election cycles since April 2019.
“Those are our voters, who left us because we’ve moved away from our traditional rhetoric,” the former Knesset member, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, continued, decrying the party’s perceived shift to the left.
“Zionism, homeland, patriotism, security – once these buzzwords stopped being identified with the party, that was the beginning of the end. Merav is a very talented politician, but the fact she’s heading the party proves this point – Labor is now a niche party; way to the left. It’s no longer a contender for national leadership,” the former lawmaker said.
Others in the party disagree.
“I’ve sat by Merav’s side in parliament for over seven years – her values align exactly with Labor values,” Omer Barlev, a Labor lawmaker since 2013, told The Media Line. “She isn’t too liberal at all. Not on security, not economically. It’s all about images. Because she’s a feminist, people say she’s too progressive. Nonsense.”
Michaeli’s victory makes her the third woman to be elected party chair, after renowned Prime Minister Golda Meir and, more recently, Shelly Yachimovich.
She will have her work cut out for her.
With the fourth general elections in two years less than two months away, the new Labor leader will have to decide whether to run independently or once again join forces with other platforms in the center-left to ensure the party passes the four-seat threshold.
Israel’s political landscape includes a slew of old and new parties vowing to unseat Netanyahu, who currently is facing criminal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, after over a decade in office.
The center-left challengers include Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Blue and White, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s new party and several other splinters and organizations.
“Obviously, all these splits and fractured parties aren’t good. But we’ll see in the coming days whether Merav’s win can generate enough enthusiasm to put us over the top without needing other parties,” Barlev said.
“I don’t necessarily believe we should sacrifice ourselves and merge with others at all costs. We’re not just another party – we have tradition, institutions, field operations, a history,” he added.
I don’t necessarily believe we should sacrifice ourselves and merge with others at all costs. We’re not just another party – we have tradition, institutions, field operations, a history
After a tumultuous two years, and a long, storied history, the Labor party hopes to finally shed its troubles and set off on a new path.
Sunday’s vote, its wary supporters hope, could be the first step.