Once ubiquitous Labor struggles ahead of elections

Party of Ben-Gurion, Rabin dominated politics for decades after Israel’s founding, but has lost ground as peace prospects wane and the national mood shifts to the right

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay leads a meeting at the Knesset in front of a poster of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, November 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/via JTA)
Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay leads a meeting at the Knesset in front of a poster of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, November 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/via JTA)

AFP — Eyal Vardi has voted for the Labor party for most of his adult life, but the 60-year-old wants to support a winner in the upcoming April 9 elections.

Attending a recent open house for a candidate for another party in an affluent community west of Jerusalem, Vardi pointed out that Labor has all but abandoned its left-wing roots anyway.

He’ll vote for the centrist Blue and White party instead.

“They’re not really different. So it’s better to give my voice to him,” he said, beckoning to Blue and White candidate Michael Biton.

“And that’s probably what I’m going to do.”

Vardi’s decision is indicative of the way in which the Labor party has fallen out of favor with many voters.

The party dominated politics in the years after the country’s founding in 1948 and sealed the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s with the Palestinians, but it has seen its influence wane as Israeli politics has shifted to the right.

Under the leadership of Avi Gabbay, Labor has moved away from its dovish past and has embraced a mix of policies.

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay and party member Tal Russo during a press conference held in Kibbutz Nahal Oz during a visit to southern Israeli communities bordering the Gaza Strip, on March 7, 2019. (Flash90)

Opinion polls show it winning around 10 seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Meanwhile, the centrist Blue and White, led by former military chief Benny Gantz, is posing a serious challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party.

Gradual decline

Labor and its earlier incarnation under the name Mapai was Israel’s unchallenged ruling party from the state’s inception in 1948 until 1977, when the Likud wrested the premiership away.

David Ben-Gurion campaigning for Mapai before the 1949 elections (Photo: Hugo Mendelson, GPO)
David Ben-Gurion campaigning for Mapai before the 1949 elections (Photo: Hugo Mendelson, GPO)

It has since then held power for a total of eight years, two of them as part of a unity government with the Likud.

That period included the 1990s Oslo accords, negotiated by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and then foreign minister Shimon Peres.

Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995, and the Oslo accords remain highly controversial among Israelis.

President Clinton gestures toward Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, left, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat shaking hands in the East Room of the White House Thursday Sept. 28, 1995. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak looks on behind Arafat. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Ehud Barak’s victory in the 1999 elections and his two-year premiership were the last time an Israeli coalition was led by Labor, which has been in decline since.

A last-minute merger between Labor and centrist Hatnuah ahead of the 2015 elections to form the Zionist Union helped make the alliance the second-largest in parliament after Likud.

Labor, running on its own this year, is unlikely to finish any higher than third.

Voters as well as politicians have found their way from Labor to other parties.

Biton served two terms as a mayor in southern city Yeruham for Labor before joining Blue and White.

‘Stuck in limbo’

“Labor identified historically with the Oslo process,” said Shmuel Rosner, author of the recently published “#IsraeliJudaism, a Portrait of a Cultural Revolution” and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.

Ehud Barak, left, with Yasser Arafat and Mohammed Dahlan at the Erez checkpoint in 1999. (Courtesy Ian Black)

The agreements with the Palestinians, however, failed to achieve lasting peace, and the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000, known as the Second Intifada, was to many Israelis proof of why they were misguided.

“Once the process went up in smoke and became unaccepted within the Jewish public in Israel, Labor failed to shift swiftly enough to the center. It took it time to realize the way the wind was blowing,” he said.

The center was quickly occupied by newly forged centrist parties, and the space to the left of Labor was already held by another party, Meretz.

“Labor got stuck in limbo,” Rosner said.

In the vacuum created since, Labor “can barely survive” and “certainly not become a ruling party,” he said.

Labor leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni announce the merger of their parties at a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 10, 2014. They said they would rotate the prime ministership if they win elections next March. (Photo credit: FLASH90)

Another key factor involves demographic changes among Israeli Jews, said Rosner.

Labor historically appealed to “a profile of an Israeli that is decreasing in size — Ashkenazi, farming communities, very secular,” he said, referring to Jews of European origin.

It has appealed less to growing sectors such as Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin, known as Mizrahi, he said.

Choosing Gabbay, who is of Moroccan origin, as leader was one way of seeking to address that.

Despite its struggles, Labor cannot be counted out completely.

Tanyah Murkes, 34, a resident of the central city of Modiin, said she was deliberating between Blue and White, Labor and Meretz.

Benny Gantz, left, and Yair Lapid of the newly-formed Blue and White alliance give a joint a statement to the press in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“I think in the end I’ll give my vote to Labor, to strengthen the Israeli left,” said Murkes, the director of Forum Dvorah, an NGO advancing women in foreign policy and national security institutions.

Meretz are too small, and Blue and White “are not presenting a center-left policy. They are leaning more to the right,” she explained.

A strong Labor party could “unite the nation” and provide a “counterweight to the right, which is very strong now.”

“I’d like to vote for a party that would be a significant part of the coalition, or lead the opposition,” she said.

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