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Pandering to the Right is a losing strategy for Labor

Israel’s Labor Party must decide what it stands for before the next round of elections. Without a true vision for the country, there’s really no reason it should win.

Newly elected head of the Israeli Labour party, Avi Gabbay, with outgoing Chairman Isaac Herzog (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)

Newly elected head of the Israeli Labour party, Avi Gabbay, with outgoing Chairman Isaac Herzog (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)

Avi Gabbay, the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, appears to be plotting a master strategy for winning elections, with laser-razor precision.

A largely unknown candidate, he is certainly aware that his first headlines will set voters’ image of him for years. His statements from the last few weeks leave little doubt about the first thing he wants them to know: I am no leftist.

First, he said Israel can have peace without dismantling settlements like Eli and Ofra—hard-core messianic settlements known for their ideology as much as their geography, deep inside the West Bank. Then he insisted he would not enter a coalition with the Joint List, the merger of three Arab parties. And this week, he lamented that the Left has been too committed to its liberal ways, at the expense of its Jewish heritage, reinforcing the notion, rather unique to Israeli Jewry, that the two are mutually exclusive.

It’s clear what he is trying to say, but it isn’t clear why Gabbay, the great blue-and-white hope of the Israeli Left, has taken the oldest and most brittle page from the dusty book of failed Labor strategy: convince right-wing voters to support Labor and shun the Left to win elections.

Far from a display of cunning strategic innovation, the move has been tried many times and failed just as many. Labor’s previous leader, Isaac Herzog, was the latest victim. In the 2015 campaign, certain advisors told him to beef up his security image, cutting an ad highlighting his military service in Israel’s intelligence and surveillance unit, and putting up billboards with giant, close-up photos of him squinting into the sunset. The colors and the crows’ feet were photoshopped; voters were derisive. In my day job as a pollster, I worked on that campaign. I always thought it was a mistake to try and out-security the Right.

Previous leaders fared no better. In 2013, Shelly Yachimovich dealt with the stigma of leftism by ignoring the conflict—she didn’t win. In 2006, Amir Peretz tried to prove his security mettle by accepting the post of defense minister, which nearly ended his career. In between, the great security symbol Ehud Barak briefly returned to lead the party, and in 2009 Labor received the lowest showing in its history with just 13 seats.

Why doesn’t it work?

To be fair, there is a logic behind the strategy. Labor is perceived as the country’s main left-wing party by voters, but only one-fifth of the Israeli public self-defines as left wing; many of those are Arabs who support the Joint List, or Meretz voters, peeling off roughly half of potential left-wing voters. To win, Labor needs more centrists, who make up roughly 30 percent of the electorate. A large portion of them are former left-wingers who still basically want to end the conflict and live in a liberal state, while rejecting the old arguments and tone of the Left. But Labor’s current 24 seats already get some of those votes, and it’s a crowded electoral camp. Yesh Atid and Kulanu have largely monopolized the centrist voters.

To achieve real victory, then, Labor concludes that it needs some voters from the Right. That bloc, including its moderate elements, makes up 45 percent of the total Israeli population and over 50 percent of the Jewish population. The distinction is important, since Jews have been the main source of voters for Labor ever since 2001, when 13 Arab civilians were killed by police during the start of the Second Intifada, under a Labor government. Arabs dropped Labor after that, and rather than try to win them back, Labor’s leaders presume time after time that “we have nothing to look for” among Arabs. Labor now looks to the Jewish Right.

The Right in Israel is characterized by a much stronger emphasis on security and nationalist-Jewish themes. Right-wing voters are more traditionally observant or religious, relative to the center and Left. Hence the simple, or simplistic answer is that winning means becoming more like them.

Except that it isn’t working. No survey since the last elections has shown Labor exceeding its current 24 seats in Knesset—almost all of them show a decline. It’s true that Labor’s numbers in public surveys are now higher than the dismal predictions prior to Gabbay’s primary victory in July, but still hovering between 19-21 seats—nowhere near victory. Centrist competitor Yesh Atid still does better, while Likud repeatedly wins.

But why should Labor win? Repeating a mantra such as “we’re actually right wing” for a decade can make a party believe its own strategy.

It’s easy to say that Labor always was right-wing on policy and hypocritical on rhetoric. Settlements and wars flourished under Labor governments.

Still, people join the Labor party and win seats on its list for a worldview that is genuinely distinct from the Right. Consider Merav Michaeli, Stav Shafir, Ksenia Svetlova, Ayelet Nahmias—these new faces did not join the party in recent years and become parliamentarians to advance a right-wing worldview. They are full of spirit, diverse experience and commitment to a broad liberal agenda, including support for a two-state solution—the opposite of Israel’s right-wing agenda.

Given who they are, the strategy of groveling to the right creates party dissonance and discontent on the inside. Outside, voters don’t know what the party stands for, or worse: they know what its people stand for, and they believe the leader is lying.

So who really represents Labor? Its “love me, I’m not a liberal” leaders, or its ideologically liberal, but probably frustrated, parliamentarians? Labor can’t answer, because it has become more focused on how to win than what it stands for. It projects an empty vessel.

Instead of chasing after tiny pockets of unlikely voters while alienating the base, Labor needs to define itself and let the voters make their choice. Following the voters means that people are not only unclear on what Labor stands for; they aren’t clear on whether it knows how to lead.

The Labor party should take a deep breath and internalize two undesirable truths:

First, Labor is very unlikely to win the next elections no matter what; accepting that should liberate the party from its pandering reflexes. Those just hoping for a victory of “the center-left bloc” can rest assured that this won’t happen because the soft-right suddenly votes Labor. If anything, they will try Kulanu or Yesh Atid. And since Moshe Kachlon of Kulanu recently vowed that his party would not enter a coalition government with Labor, the “bloc” strategy should not be driving party identity.

Second, brute honesty is the new art of campaigning. As the leader of a former communist country once mused to me, “it’s not so easy to fool the people anymore.”

When a party is fundamentally clear on what it is and what its central values are, then its positions on the conflict, economic and other urgent social issues will be intuitive and logical to the voters. The party will get credit for clarity and leadership, which excites people.

The vision

What should that core Labor identity be?

There is a gaping hole in Israel where there should be a large, mainstream party with a deep and comprehensive progressive worldview. That party should would state that conflict resolution is essential to national development, for the social, psychological, economic, global and military good of the country.

Such a party should map a plan for ending the bizarre conflation of religion and state in Israel, an anachronistic system that is anti-equality, anti-woman, anti-civil rights and stifles shared civic identity; it is a primitive violation of freedom of and from religion that makes a mockery of Jewish values.

That party will denounce toxic populist religious nationalism in both rhetoric and legislation, and harness Israel’s genuine liberal instincts on issues ranging from gender equality to same-sex rights. It will expand the set of progressive social issues in Israel to include full civic equality of Jews and Arabs, government and private sector accountability, even improving the environment. It will be the champion of Israeli democracy, the guardian of an independent judiciary,  and the fighter for freedom of expression.

Israel needs a party unafraid to say that ending the five-decade military regime is best for Israel, but also that this regime suffocates lives and robs people of their self-determination and is intolerable.

If this sounds like Meretz, it is important to note that there are many ways in which Labor is more appealing to the center that need not be lost. Additionally, a clear Labor platform could free Meretz to stake out a further-left position on the Israel political spectrum—or the opposite: merging is not a bad word in Israeli politics either.

Once Labor knows and says what it is, some will support it, others won’t. Labor may still lose elections for the near future. But without a true vision for the country, there’s really no reason it should win.

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    1. Ben

      “Still, people join the Labor party and win seats on its list for a worldview that is genuinely distinct from the Right. Consider Merav Michaeli, Stav Shafir, Ksenia Svetlova, Ayelet Nahmias….”

      As with Maya Haber’s recent assessment of the Left (“Without obtaining power, the Israeli Left will remain paralyzed,” Nov. 9) I’m skeptical of this similar assessment by Dahlia Scheindlin, and think that Edo Konrad’s is the more astute voice of realism. (See “Why I’m not fighting for a ‘better Israel'”, Nov. 6).

      Compare and contrast Scheindlin’s view of Stav Shaffir with Konrad’s, here:

      “Why the ‘hijacking’ of Israeli democracy is a myth”

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      ​Gideon Levy’ makes this point even more clearly:

      “…Take the latest model, Stav Shaffir, a promising young woman with an impressive past, a discouraging present and a glowing future…Active and vigorous, she paves the way upward. When she grows up she’ll be Isaac Herzog. Not that she simply criticizes Herzog, the leader of her party, the senior partner in the Zionist Union. She does this, unbelievably, from the right…”

      read more: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.675385

      Reply to Comment
    3. JitKunDo

      I don’t understand the logic. There are more voters in the center than in the left. The voters on the left have nowhere to go except to parties that will sit with Labor in a coalition. There is no electoral value in going left. Labor’s “base” consists of the relatively well-off and the elderly who have always voted Labor. Both groups are proudly Zionist. They form the 13-15 MKs that are the electoral baseline for Labor. There is an additional 5-7 MKs worth of voters in Meretz. Cannibalizing Meretz by going further left is possible but there is an upper ceiling there. At most the gains from going left is the 5-7 MKs of Meretz and the 3-4 MKs of Arabs and Jews that vote Hadash (and even these are doubtful). Arabs that vote Balad, Raam, and Taal (and lets be honest and say much of Hadash) are sectoral voters that will vote for Arab parties regardless. So, that is a max of lets say 25 MKs. And with the kinds of gymnastics that Labor would need to appeal to those voters it would likely alienate its actual base which is Zionist, so even the 25 MK figure is entirely unrealistic. The only thing that going left will ensure is that Lapid has the opportunity to steal more former Labor voters.

      I understand the appeal of wanting Labor to share your values, but this isn’t an electoral argument. There is no gaping hole in Israeli politics. There is Meretz which represents much of the values you like, and it is flirting with electoral thresholds. This isn’t the US. There is no Obama coalition to be had. The demographics are not shifting in the direction of an Obama coalition, in fact the opposite. There isn’t a massive base that simply needs to be inspired. These people simply don’t exist because the third axis of Israeli politics is security which overshadows the others and it is on this axis that Labor can either make gains or it can ensure its future losses.

      Labor’s only serious possible strategy is to do precisely what Gabbay is doing, which is to shift to the center and shift the party accordingly so as to appeal to the center where Yair Lapid has thrived precisely because the Labor party has stuck to its outdated positions on the peace/cultural issues (ie the Garbuz issue). Shelly didn’t shift the Labor policy on this. She just decided it isn’t worth talking about it. Herzog made an effort but no one believed him precisely because of the Labor MKs that you think are an electoral asset (and especially Ms. Michaeli who would find a more fitting home in Meretz). And Ehud Barak is just a failed politician that has zero electoral appeal. Labor can’t be seen to just be faking going right. It actually has to drop its elitist and leftist perception which can only happen by bringing in new blood into the party.

      The first step was electing a politician that is not a traditional Labor voter and who comes from the center/right and the next step is to clean house and replace the electoral dead weight of which there is plenty among the Labor parties MKs with candidates that have more authentic security and cultural appeal to the Israeli center. And I think that is a critical point. Labor doesn’t and can’t appeal to the right. It can and has to appeal to the center. The idea that the voters in the center are “monopolized” by Yesh Atid and Kachlon seems somewhat absurd since these are voters that shift according to the way the wind is blowing. When Labor looks like it has no chance to win they will shift to Lapid. When it looks like it has a chance to win they shift back (as happened in the last election). And as far as electoral politics goes, a shift right by Labor would push Lapid right to appeal to actual right-wing voters. If you do the math on that it becomes possible to have a blocking majority to prevent a full right-wing/religious victory (Bibi, Bennett, Liberman, UTJ, Shas, Kachlon) which makes it possible to make deals to form a center government (Gabay, Lapid, Kachlon and Liberman with support from Meretz/Arabs from the outside) especially if Shas collapses as it is doing now and .

      As for the current statements of Kachlon and others about not joining a Gabay coalition, that should be taken with the customary grain of salt and seen within the context of electoral politics in the center. The parties in the center have an inherent interest in presenting Labor as a leftist party because such a label is toxic and so wins them voters. The statements are a sign that these politicians see Gabbay as a threat to their electoral futures. What will happen after the next elections is an entirely different ballgame. Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        It seems to me that everything you say here Dahlia Scheindlin already said, and your lengthy opinion reads as an extended exercise in missing her point. Here is the abstract:

        “I always thought it was a mistake to try and out-security the Right…. The Labor party should take a deep breath and internalize two undesirable truths: First, Labor is very unlikely to win the next elections no matter what…. When a party is fundamentally clear on what it is and what its central values are, then its positions on the conflict, economic and other urgent social issues will be intuitive and logical to the voters. The party will get credit for clarity and leadership, which excites people.”

        Reply to Comment