As Gantz takes on the Rabin mantle, Israel’s Labor party slides toward oblivion
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As Gantz takes on the Rabin mantle, Israel’s Labor party slides toward oblivion

In an election now clearly a battle of two Benjamins, the party that led Israel for its first 30 years is irrelevant, and it’s not the only one that must merge or risk extinction

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Then chief of staff Benny Gantz sits with members of the Rabin family at a seminar at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in October 2012 marking the anniversary of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Then chief of staff Benny Gantz sits with members of the Rabin family at a seminar at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in October 2012 marking the anniversary of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. (Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Obscured by the headlines generated Wednesday by poll figures suggesting Benny Gantz’s candidacy now poses a genuine prime ministerial challenge to Benjamin Netanyahu was the same surveys’ indication that the Labor party is edging toward extinction.

Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party reacted to the surveys with sensible skepticism, saying it was “not ecstatic over upturns nor worried about downturns. The public will decide.”

Indeed, the public will. And the pollsters’ track record in predicting those decisions is not exactly stellar. Pollsters got the last US presidential elections wrong, and they were dealing with just two candidates. Their Israeli counterparts have to factor in dozens of parties, and deal with the complications posed by a pure proportional representation system, with a complex 3.25% minimum threshold mechanism. Not to mention the fact that Israeli voters may not, shock, always tell the pollsters the truth. And that surveys are often carried out in immense haste, with fairly small samples, and consequent fairly large margins of error.

So, on the one hand, we shouldn’t rely on the polls. On the other, they do create certain perceptions that affect the electorate’s mindset:

Now that the surveys are ostensibly showing Gantz to be a real prime ministerial contender, the public will come to regard him as a real prime ministerial contender. Now that the polls purport to show that Netanyahu may be facing the most serious challenge to his position in years, he has to contend with the perception that he’s potentially in trouble, and that somewhere, for the first time, seeds of doubt may have been planted in the minds of even some of his hitherto rock-solid supporters.

If enough potential Labor voters become persuaded that the party is in terminal freefall and could disappear beneath that Knesset threshold, disappear it will

And now that Labor has purportedly plummeted from 24 seats in the outgoing Knesset (when it was allied with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua), to a paltry six seats in the surveys on Wednesday, its leader Avi Gabbay knows that hitherto instinctive Labor voters may today be asking themselves whether a vote for Labor may be a vote that is lost altogether.

Zionist Union party Avi Gabbay seen during a faction meeting at the Israeli parliament on February 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Labor was the party of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. It led Israel unchallenged for the first three decades of statehood. But none of that gives it a guarantee of eternal political life. It says it has a far from negligible 60,000 fee-paying members, and it commands a polished apparatus for getting out the vote on election day. But if enough potential Labor voters become persuaded that, no, the party is in terminal freefall and could disappear beneath that Knesset threshold, disappear it will.

Unite or die

There is one expedient, however, by which Labor could all but guarantee its survival after April 9: By merging with Meretz, the only other substantial Zionist party to its left. The idea is anathema to Gabbay, who sat as a minister in Netanyahu’s government when representing the Kulanu party as recently as 2016, and who has sought to draw votes from the center and right, not the further left. Meretz would doubtless recoil from such a partnership for precisely the same reasons. But Meretz is polling at a dire four seats, barely clearing the threshold and facing an even more acute threat of extinction than Labor.

The dismal poll showings of Labor and Meretz underline the collapse of the left as this election campaign gets going in earnest. Gabbay’s Labor does not claim that peace is there to be made if only Israel would stretch out a warmer hand than Netanyahu’s. So if Labor doesn’t believe it can make peace, plenty of former Labor voters are apparently concluding, who needs it? Meretz remains adamant that a viable deal can and must be done, but evidently only a small and dwindling proportion of the electorate shares the conviction.

Numerous parties, some of them relatively well-established, are now at risk of disappearance; they serve no essential purpose

For Gabbay and Meretz’s Tamar Zandberg, an alliance that both would loathe for these elections may therefore be the only means to live to fight another day. One might have suggested they reach out to Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua while they’re about it. She’s gone from within touching distance of the prime ministership, after Ehud Olmert resigned 10 years ago, to polling far below the threshold today. But I suspect Livni would rather accept her fate than have anything further to do with Gabbay, who brutally uncoupled the Labor-Hatnua alliance a month ago, live on TV, as Livni sat, unwarned, in total shock alongside him.

The imperative to unite is not confined to the left, however. The surveys’ potentially self-fulfilling predictions show numerous parties, some of them relatively well-established, now at risk of disappearance — marginalized in part because of the rise of Gantz, but mainly because they serve no essential purpose.

The United States trundles along with two main groupings for its 240 million or so eligible voters; the United Kingdom’s mother of parliaments has various minor parties but only two real heavyweights. Most of Israel’s new one-man parties (yes, they are almost all led by men, ex-military men in several cases) will fail by miles to reach the Knesset, but some of the veteran parties should and may have to team up as well.

It’s not left or right; it’s Benjamin or Benny

While Israeli political infighting is vicious, ideological differences have narrowed. Everybody would love peace; very few people believe it is attainable. This is not 1999, when Netanyahu told Israelis there was no chance of a historic accord with the Palestinians, and Ehud Barak ousted him because he convinced enough voters — wrongly, as it turned out — that there was.

This election is unlikely to be a battle over left and right — no matter how hard Likud tries to make it so. It will rather be a choice of personalities — between a vastly experienced prime minister, widely respected for having protected Israel from without, and a neophyte ex-army chief arguing that this same prime minister is tearing Israel apart from within

Ultimately, this election is unlikely to be a battle over left and right — no matter how hard Likud tries to make it so, and to depict Gantz as a weak man of the left. It will rather be a choice of personalities — between a vastly experienced prime minister, widely respected for having protected Israel from without, and a neophyte ex-army chief arguing that this same prime minister is tearing Israel apart from within. Between an incumbent who warns of a bleak future without him in a treacherous region, and a contender promising that, for all the very real threats, things can be a great deal better.

Netanyahu’s opponents have claimed — with increasing ferocity as the corruption investigations against him have progressed — that the man is a menace. But as I wrote here in December 2017, that argument was undermined by the fact that, for all the ostensible danger, his would-be successors were all too egotistical at the time to unite in order to tackle him, which suggested to the electorate that perhaps the danger was not so acute, after all. Now one of the prime minister’s principal critics, ex-Likud defense minister and chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, has thrown in his lot with Gantz — albeit at a time when Ya’alon’s Telem party was otherwise going nowhere.

While we wait to see if Gantz and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid will resolve their clash of personal leadership ambitions in the shared cause of defeating Netanyahu, Gabbay has missed his chance for an alliance with the centrists, who regard Labor as a liability. The historic party of government is a victim of a toxic and unpredictable regional climate and a party leadership that failed to move with those times. It is Gantz, not Gabbay, who has taken on Yitzhak Rabin’s skeptical, straight-talking mantle, with the same chief-of-staff credibility to go with it.

Labor and most everybody else are mere adjuncts to these elections, which have now indeed become, as I suggested in December that they would, “A Battle of Two Benjamins.”

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month. The two men have different views on Iran sanctions (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash 90)
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (left) in a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash 90)
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