Once dominant, Israel's Labour party struggles ahead of elections

The party has seen its influence wane since Israeli politics has shifted to the right

Afp April 06, 2019
Israel's Labour Party, headed by Avi Gabbay, has fallen out of favour with voters. PHOTO: AFP

MOTZA ILLIT, ISRAEL: Eyal Vardi has voted for Israel's Labour party for most of his adult life, but the 60-year-old wants to support a winner in April 9 elections.

Attending a recent open house for a candidate for another party in an affluent community west of Jerusalem, Vardi points out that Labour has all but abandoned its leftwing 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 Israel's Labour party has fallen out of favour 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.

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Under the leadership of Avi Gabbay, Labour has largely abandoned its doveish past and has embraced a mix of policies.

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 rightwing Likud party.

Labour 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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

"Labour 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.

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, Labour failed to shift swiftly enough to the centre. It took it time to realise the way the wind was blowing," he said.

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

"Labour got stuck in limbo," Rosner said.

In the vacuum created since, Labour "can barely survive" and "certainly not become a ruling party".

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

Labour 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.

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

Despite its struggles, Labour cannot be counted out completely.

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

"I think in the end I'll give my vote to Labour, 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 centre-left policy. They are leaning more to the right," she explained.

A strong Labour 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.