For the last few weeks, Israel’s main evening newscast has been tracking the free fall of the Labour Party.
Once headed by founding father David Ben Gurion, Labour seems to be in terminal decline. It currently holds just 24 of 120 seats in the Knesset, and consistently secures just enough support in polls to scrape the threshold of 4 seats. If nothing changes, it may win five or six seats, at most.
Theories abound as to how and why this decline occurred, but the fact is that Israel is no longer a socialist country requiring collectivist economic and social policies to nation-build. In recent decades, the kibbutz movement has all but died as the moshav communities—farming villages with privately cultivated land and industry but collective infrastructure—have flourished. The economy has diversified as it has been deregulated. By every metric, quality of life in Israel has improved and the notoriously individualistic population has thrived.
In the runup to the 2015 elections, then-Labour leader Ya’akov Herzog invited Tzipi Livni, the leader of the HaTenuah (movement) Party, to combine forces. They called the merger “Zionist Union.” At the time, Livni delivered six seats and a bump in the polls. She also came with a lot of baggage. Livni had switched parties several times since entering political life in 1999, and it branded her haughty and disloyal.
But party hopping is not so exceptional in Israel, where everyone is always looking for a way to leverage more power in coalition negotiations. It is not uncommon for a disgruntled caucus member to form a new party. What was different about Livni was her shift over time from the right—as a stalwart Likudnik—to the left, in an alliance with Labour. That, in Israel, is unforgivable, particularly for the scion of Israeli royalty. Livni’s father was among a handful of revered Irgun activists in Israel’s formative years and later a Likud MK.
Following Herzog’s appointment as Chairman of the Jewish Agency in June, 2018, the Zionist Union selected Avi Gabbay as its new leader. He, too, comes with a checkered past; having served briefly as Minister of Environmental Protection (2015-16) as a member of the Kulanu Party (a splinter led by former Likud MK Moshe Kachlon, whose niche platform focuses on economic policies to support and empower the less privileged). Gabbay loves to talk about his “rags to riches” story, seeing him rise from a family of lower-middle-class Moroccan immigrants to become the CEO of Israeli telecom giant Bezeq.
He has always been an awkward fit with Labour, a party whose members tend not to be the sojourning, opportunistic types. They are hardcore and steadfast. And therein, likely, is the reason for the party’s demise. Livni was viewed with suspicion, given her right-wing roots. Gabbay was a dark horse winner who seems to have seen the leadership contest as a perfect moment to repot himself and realize his ambition to be Prime Minister. All he needed was a vehicle, or so he presumed.
Gabbay’s lack of charisma and political credibility has gutted the Labour party.
And then, there was the press conference he called on January 1. With Livni sitting beside him, Gabbay wished her well in the coming elections, whichever party she would choose to join. In other words, he kicked her to the curb and dissolved the Zionist Union without the courtesy of having advised her in advance. The shock showed on her face, televised nationally, and Gabbay’s nastiness became the subject of speculative chatter for a few days.
In the end, Livni appears to have worn out her welcome, politically. Her Tenuah party is polling at .4 percent, well below the 3.75 percent popular vote threshold required to sit in the Knesset. Perhaps more humiliating than Gabbay’s very public defenestration is the fact that any other party she could plausibly join has made it clear that she is not welcome. It’s been a rather ignominious flameout for someone who came within a whisker of forming the government in 2009.
In recent days, Labour has rebounded a touch, now polling at 8 seats, partially attributable to shock and a strong, residual sentimentality. But what matters is who will sit with whom in a coalition, and many voters who were likely tending to Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party will vacillate between his party and Labour.
Newly launched and with a saccharine platform that would make him messiah-like if he delivered, Benny makes people feel good. He is branded as the anti-Bibi. He is tall, blue-eyed and bland enough to allow people to project onto him what they wish him to be. What he does have, indisputably, is a strong roster of key party members, including former Likudnik (as well as former IDF Chief of Staff and Minister of Defence under Bibi), Moshe Ya’alon.
Polling very strongly, Gantz could find himself in the position of trying to form a coalition after April 9. If he does, he will need the support of Labour. And that’s the bright side for Labour; ever so slight, but another seat or two from sudden death.