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Labour’s Downhill Journey in Israel

P.R. Kumaraswamy is Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
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  • July 24, 2017

    Avi Gabbay! The euphoria over the election of a rank outsider as its new leader is insufficient to gloss over the deep malaise facing Israel’s Labour Party. That he was able to defeat the established party functionaries not only indicates the longing for a change but also a desperation for effective leadership.

    The party has been going through turmoil since losing monopoly over power in 1977 and is unable to regain its erstwhile pre-eminence and even relevance. Securing 44 seats under Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 was its highpoint and a distant and fading memory.

    Let’s look at some hard and harsh facts. Since Rabin’s assassination, the party has been on a suicidal mission. It has held more primaries than Knesset elections.

    Between 1948 and today, the Labour party and its previous avatar Mapai had as many as 18 leaders including seven who served as prime ministers. During the same period, Israel held 20 Knesset elections. If one excludes the period when the Mapai/Labour had dominated the political landscape, the picture is less rosy and fractured. Since the death of Rabin in 1995, the party had ten leaders when there were only seven Knesset elections. In short, the deeply fractured and divided Knesset has been more stable than the Labour party. Likewise, between March 2009 when Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected as prime minister and now, the party has had five leaders, including Michael Harish who briefly served as acting head.

    Leadership challenges are not the only problem haunting the Labour party. Since the days of Rafi, it has faced rebellion, defections, and splits. Not that the Likud’s political journey has been rosy; Ariel Sharon broke the party to form Kadima, while Benny Begin briefly sought to resurrect the Herut under a new name. Netanyahu has often faced challenges from the Right-wing of the party, but the Likud leadership has been more coherent than its Labour counterpart.

    In nearly seven decades, Likud and its predecessors Herut and Gahal only had four leaders, namely, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, with Netanyahu being elected twice. Netanyahu has already become the longest continuously serving head of government and could overtake David Ben-Gurion's record for the longest days in office if he retains that position until 17 July 2019. Ben-Gurian headed as many as eight governments during his 13-year in office. Despite deep divisions and the shrinking of big parties, during his 11 years in office, Netanyahu has headed only four governments.

    The electoral fortunes of the Labour Party have been on a decline since 1977, more so after 1992. On three occasions, it could not go beyond the teens, and at times its share of the popular vote was smaller than those of Shas, a party that is predominantly ethnic-religious in its orientation.

    How does one explain Labour’s decline? Some factors are systemic. Though an immigrant from Poland, as a late comer in yishuv politics, Begin was able to rail against the socialist Zionists represented by Ben-Gurian as Ashkenazi elitism. That eventually catapulted him to power in 1977. Copycatting this, Labour leaders tried to reach out to the Mizrahi population through public apologies and remorse over the prolonged ‘neglect’ and ‘indifference’, but failed to make electoral gains.

    Labour’s loss of monopoly over power also coincided with an excessive focus or even obsession with the peace process. This resulted in Labour handing over the social agenda to other parties, especially Shas, which emerged as the champion of social welfare benefits, health, housing and education -- issues that distinguished social Zionism in the 1950s and 1960s.

    However, a far serious problem has been the party’s leadership. If one excludes Peres, often derided as ‘the perennial loser', Labour leaders have lacked the tenacity and determination essential to lead the party to victory. At the first defeat in the polls, they either take political renunciation or jump into lucrative private business. They are not typical ‘political animals’ who remain undaunted by reversals. Some do return to the party, but their re-entry is often preceded either by less attractive options elsewhere or inability of incumbent leaders to navigate the party. Ehud Barak, for example, left the party twice and formed a breakaway faction once and has been on a ‘re-entry’ phase since smelling troubles for Isaac Herzog, whom Gabbay replaced.
    In contrast, defeat has never daunted the Likud. Eight successive Knesset defeats did not force Begin into political exile. Nor was he seen as a ‘loser’, definitely not within his own party. But Peres was less fortunate.

    Over the years, the Likud was able to unite with others and transform itself from Herut to Gahal to Likud. It had its moments of disunity, like Gesher under David Levy, and Kadima under Sharon, as well as constant challenges from the so-called ‘princes' within the party and activists in the settler movement. But by and large the party has been more coherent and politically dexterous. Indeed, when Sharon challenged Barak in 2001, he was not presenting himself as the leader of the right but of the Israeli centre.

    The willingness of the Likud to stay in power though different arrangements since the unity government of the 1980s has also been a factor. Labour needs to gain power in order to make it relevant or be heard. But unable to defeat Netanyahu, some in Labour are seeking to prevent his re-election by limiting the tenure of the Prime Minister. If you can't beat him join him, was the traditional view. Now, Labour seems to suggest that, if you can't defeat him politically, try a legal hurdle.

    The severing of the umbilical cord between the Labour and Histadrut trade union and Kupat Holim health foundation as well as the marginalisation of the Kibbutz movement have further added to the Party’s woes. But much of its problems has to be laid at the door step of its leaders.

    The signs of Labour’s plight were visible in the November 1995 rally in the then Kikar Malkhey Yisrael—now the Rabin Square — in Tel Aviv where Prime Minister Rabin was killed. Apprehensions over meagre participation forced the organisers to convert it into a peace rally with the participation of leading cultural figures. The left in Israel has been vocal in airing its views through the media and television commentaries but when it comes to voting with its feet it has been conspicuous by its absence.

    Though Peres had control over the well-oiled party machinery, in 1992 the party switched its loyalty and leadership to Rabin because of the latter’s perceived influence beyond the party. This is no longer the case. The leadership issue is more about who controls the party and not who could convince a larger Israeli public to vote for the party. In the final analysis, the obsession seems to be over capturing the leadership of the party not leading the country. In the light of all this, the question that naturally arises is: how long will Gabbay stay before he is challenged and replaced?

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.