The item turned up almost an hour into Sunday’s Channel 12 news, sandwiched between a speculative report on who will succeed Yaakov Litzman as health minister and coverage of an ongoing row between the attorney general and the acting state attorney: The Labor Party’s central committee had voted to back its leader Amir Peretz and join the coalition Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is aiming to lead alongside his Blue and White rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz.
“We are not joining a right-wing government,” declared a delighted Peretz — which will have been news to Netanyahu, who hours earlier had reiterated his intention to annex parts of the West Bank a couple of months from now, as specifically mandated in the coalition agreement.
“Our strategic cooperation with Benny Gantz will return Labor to its place as a leading and influential political movement,” added Peretz, who is set to become Israel’s economy minister, still more preposterously.
Far from presaging Labor’s revival, what its central committee has approved is quite the opposite: In permitting Peretz and his colleague Itzik Shmuli to become two irrelevant ministers among the 32, rising to 36, around Netanyahu’s cabinet table, they are putting their dying party out of its misery.
Under one name or other, Labor oversaw the founding of modern Israel and led it through its first three turbulent decades of statehood — somehow steering the nascent state through the unwinnable War of Independence to the astounding success of the Six Day War, and shaping the nation’s education and health systems, its infrastructure and economy, its foreign relations and its domestic priorities. It then entered what must now be recognized as a protracted but terminal decline with the shock of the Yom Kippur War.
And now, it exists in name only. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, its confused and exhausted members on Sunday assented to Peretz’s request to be devoured by Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition, for the sake of one last photo op at the cabinet table.
What is striking about Labor’s demise is the speed of its final acceleration into the political grave. Having first lost power to Menachem Begin’s Likud in 1977, it was still strong enough to win back the national leadership under Yitzhak Rabin in 1992. Discredited by the Arafat-orchestrated suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, having legitimized the PLO leader with the Oslo Accords, and shattered by the assassination of Rabin, it nonetheless managed a final, brief spell at Israel’s helm under Ehud Barak in 1999-2001.
And as recently as the 2015 elections, under Isaac Herzog, it won 24 seats (under the Zionist Union rubric) to Likud’s 30, forcing Netanyahu to scramble to assemble a majority coalition. What a vote-winner the widely derided Herzog looks in hindsight, with Labor since reduced to six seats under Avi Gabbay a year ago, and then to five and finally three under Peretz in our last two elections.
The marginalization and now the subsumption of Labor is a function, first and foremost, of middle Israel’s lost faith in the possibility of an accommodation with the Palestinians — a conclusion unsurprisingly drawn from that strategic onslaught of suicide bombers twenty years ago.
The final, broken representatives of David Ben-Gurion’s pioneering party are now to find themselves part of a government committed to the unilateral annexation of the settlements and the Jordan Valley — expediting not only the demise of Labor, but also, quite possibly, of the two-state solution for which the party stood
While Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas has not directly orchestrated terrorism, his hierarchy has continued to demonize and incite against Israel. In that climate, and with Hamas intermittently reminding Israelis of the dangers of relinquishing territory, Labor has mustered no credible alternative approach, and no articulate counter, to Netanyahu and his insistence that Israel has no partner with whom to negotiate. And thus the final, broken representatives of David Ben-Gurion’s pioneering party are now to find themselves part of a government committed to the unilateral annexation of the settlements and the Jordan Valley — expediting not only the demise of Labor, but also, quite possibly, of the two-state solution for which the party stood.
Labor’s passing was hastened by the arrival of Benny Gantz, who pulled away much of its electorate in building the most potent alternative to Netanyahu in years, an alliance dominated by ex-IDF chiefs that challenged the Likud leader’s Mr. Security credentials.
Gantz has been excoriated by his abandoned partners Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon for the staggering volte-face that saw him put aside the cardinal promise throughout three election campaigns not to sit in government with a prime minister under indictment who is battering away at Israel’s law enforcement hierarchies. But Labor’s volte-face, though far less significant given its now tiny voter base, is the more extreme and the more pathetic.
Gantz’s stance on Israel’s place in the region, in so far as it can be credibly discerned and as signaled by the coalition terms he has accepted, may not be too far removed from that of Netanyahu. Labor, by contrast, was the historic alternative to Likud, a party that, in seeking to achieve security and peace, was not ideologically committed to deepening Israel’s hold on historic and religiously resonant Judea and Samaria, a party that saw profound danger for Jewish and democratic Israel in a permanent entanglement amid millions of Palestinians in the West Bank.
Appropriately enough, even Labor’s ultimate disintegration has been a mess. A party that has switched its leaders about 10 times in the Netanyahu era came under the renewed guidance of the veteran Peretz last year because neither of its two brightest young hopes, Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir, would step aside in the race for the top job, thus splitting the leadership vote and clearing Peretz’s path. Now Shaffir has lost her Knesset seat, Shmuli is trailing Peretz into the coalition, and one last Labor MK, Merav Michaeli, stands alone beyond Netanyahu’s embrace, defeated by that central committee vote, helpless.
“Read my lips,” implored Peretz last August, displaying to the nation his freshly shaven features, trademark mustache shaved clean away. “I decided to remove my mustache so that all of Israel will understand exactly what I’m saying and will be able to read my lips: I won’t sit with Bibi,” he promised.
Now that Peretz, shorn by his own razor of any last vestige of integrity, has decided to breach that solemnly delivered promise, there can be no way back for Labor. It only got into the Knesset this time in an alliance with Meretz and Gesher. Meretz won’t touch it now, and Gesher preceded it into Netanyahu territory.
So farewell, then, to Labor. Farewell to the party of Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, and those perennial rivals Rabin and Shimon Peres. Farewell to the party that founded and shaped modern Israel.
Now let’s move on to news that matters, like who’s going to succeed Yaakov Litzman at the Health Ministry.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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