In retrospect, the late winter and early spring of 2016 may have proven fateful to the future of the Labor Party, setting off a chain of events that culminated on Tuesday, when the first-round results of the opposition party’s leadership primary were announced.
It started on February 8 of last year, in what barely made a blip on the Israeli radar: Former Labor leader MK Amir Peretz formally rejoined the party after over three years in the Hatnua party, which along with Labor makes up the Zionist Union faction.
Thirteen days later, according to reports in the Haaretz newspaper, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a secret summit in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba along with then-US secretary of state John Kerry, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in a bid to restart peace talks. According to the reports, Netanyahu, Sissi and then-Labor leader Isaac Herzog held a second secret meeting in Cairo in April 2016 to discuss efforts to resume the long-dormant negotiations.
Those meetings, according to Herzog, were what prompted him to seek covert coalition negotiations with Netanyahu. But the maneuver fell apart that May, when the prime minister cut a deal with the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party to join the government instead.
As part of the coalition agreement, Netanyahu fired then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and handed Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman the keys to the Defense Ministry, angering his environmental protection minister at the time, Avi Gabbay of the Kulanu party.
Gabbay, who was also opposed to the government’s controversial deal for the extraction of offshore gas, proceeded to resign from the government the following month, with an irate tirade in which he accused the coalition of sending Israel down a path of destruction.
Though a private appointment by Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon and not an elected official, Gabbay then crossed the political aisle and joined Labor, announcing he would run for its leadership and challenge Netanyahu.
On Tuesday, 14 months later, Herzog was unseated after a tumultuous four years at Labor’s helm, with new recruit Gabbay heading to a runoff vote against Peretz next Monday.
Coalition talks — a step too far?
For Labor voters, Herzog’s secret negotiations to join Netanyahu’s government in 2016 appear to have crossed a line.
And it isn’t that he didn’t try to persuade his constituents of his good intentions.
At the time, there was a historic opportunity to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he has repeatedly stressed, and recent reports in Haaretz on covert meetings with Arab leaders appeared to confirm his account.
The talks with Netanyahu — which Herzog denied ad nauseam until the truth was finally broken in the press — created a deep divide among Labor lawmakers who opposed joining the right-wing coalition, and resented being sidelined.
In the months before the primary, Herzog took to advocating for political parties to join him and create a center-left bloc to oust Netanyahu. He continued to push that agenda even as parties such as the centrist Yesh Atid rejected his overtures outright. And even as he railed against the prime minister from the Knesset podium, the not-so-combative Herzog made it abundantly clear that he would offer a political safety net to the prime minister on all matters relating to a potential regional peace process.
It seems Herzog’s coalition-building efforts and feeble political maneuvering were not easily forgotten by the 84 percent of Labor voters who chose candidates other than him on Tuesday.
To thy Labor Party be true?
But if Herzog is looking for a silver lining on what at first blush appears to be the twilight of his career, he need look no further than rival Peretz’s comeback and Gabbay’s rise — living proof that absolute loyalty to one’s camp matters little to party voters in the long-run.
Peretz, who was himself a minister in Netanyahu governments, has pulled ahead in the leadership race despite jumping ship from his party twice when politically convenient — first in the 1990s to form the Am Ehad party, which merged back with the Labor party in 2005, and then in 2012 to Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua, which in late 2014 also joined forces with Labor to form the Zionist Union.
The same is true of Gabbay, who not only shifted his loyalties from the right, but was caught lying about it just a few weeks ago.
Since launching his campaign, Gabbay has danced around defining his partisan loyalties, saying only that he supports “left-wing values” but does not consider himself “a leftist.” During a debate hosted by the Walla news site last month, he said that he had voted for Labor in most past elections. Asked directly by another contender, MK Erel Margalit, whether he had supported Likud in the past, Gabbay replied firmly: “Never.”
Margalit proceeded to whip out his phone, showing a 2015 interview in which Gabbay said that he had, in fact, voted for Likud once. He also said he had voted for Tzipi Livni in 2013 and backed Ariel Sharon’s Kadima. As for Labor, he indicated only that he had voted for the party under Yitzhak Rabin.
In a follow-up attempt to clarify his statements on Likud, Gabbay told Hebrew media that he was confused because in 2001 he had voted for Likud’s Sharon, who several years later went on to found Kadima.
Tuesday’s results among the three top contenders, all of whom have a history of shifting political alliances, was telling of a Labor party constituency that is willing to forgive politicians for not being entirely faithful to their base — so long as they are likely to bring home the bacon come election day.
Elect the same leaders, just not consecutively
Another reason that could account for Herzog’s defeat and Peretz’s rise is Labor Party voting trends: Since adopting the primary system in 1992, Labor has not reelected a single leader for two consecutive terms. The closest it came to that was voting for Ehud Barak twice — a decade apart — in 1999 and 2009.
That same tendency to flip-flop — or, as Israelis resentfully call it, “zigzag” — exhibited by Peretz, Gabbay, and Herzog was also characteristic of Barak, who seceded from Labor in 2011 to form the short-lived Independence Party, simply in order to allow him to stay in Netanyahu’s government.
Peretz could be on track to repeat Barak’s feat of regaining the party leadership. But Gabbay’s fresh blood and former right-wing street cred — both valuable assets in a general election — may entice Labor voters eager to restore the troubled party to power, making him a serious contender. In interviews after Tuesday’s results came in, he portrayed himself as the party’s fresh face, and his success as evidence that Labor voters “want change.” Rather than joining coalitions, he said, with a dig at Herzog, Labor under his leadership would aim to form coalitions.
Should Gabbay win next Monday — and he insisted late Tuesday that he has the momentum to do so — the party, which has continually slipped in the polls and currently seems destined to languish in the opposition, could be signaling it is charting a new course.
But should Peretz beat back Gabbay, reaffirming Labor’s tendency to recrown its felled leaders — well, here’s looking at you, Isaac Herzog 2027.
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