(April 18, 2019 / Israel Hayom) On Nov. 22, 1965, members of the sixth Kness—et met for the first, historic meeting in the new Knesset building, which was nearly complete. One hundred and twenty members of the newly elected Knesset took their places on the new chairs, and 45 of them were members of the socialist Alignment. Another 10 would wind up joining the list during their next term, thus bringing the successor of the historic Mapai party to an all-time high of 55 seats.
A few weeks from now, when the 21st Knesset holds its first meeting, it will include only six Labor members, an almost pitiful remnant of the party that founded the nation. The big question facing the crumbling institution isn’t how to retake the reins of power, but whether it should turn out the light and step off the stage of history.
The ongoing crisis engulfing the Labor party didn’t begin when Avi Gabbay was elected chairman, and its roots lie in the trauma that the entire left-wing camp experienced when the Oslo Accords collapsed and the Second Intifada erupted. Still, it seems that the election of Gabbay turned a party in crisis into a dying political entity. It’s hard to find senior party officials today who disagree with the opinion that the choice of Gabbay for party leader was a “work accident.”
Gabbay, who describes himself as having grown up in a home of Likud supporters and whom many doubt has ever actually voted Labor, took control of the party as a result of personal interest and circumstances. After he resigned from his position as environmental protection minister, he looked for a political platform that would put him back on center stage. At the same time, Labor members were searching desperately for a new messiah, someone who didn’t represent the party’s aging, corrupt image and who could shake things up and attract new voters.
A day before the second round of party primaries, in which Gabbay was running against Amir Peretz, Yoram Dori—a former adviser to Shimon Peres—wrote a short Facebook post in which he said: “Tomorrow, the Labor party should decide between a leader with experience and a leadership trial.” It’s doubtful that Dori himself knew these words would turn into a grim prophecy. Labor members voted for Gabbay without knowing him, effectively buying a pig in a poke. A day after the primaries, polls showed the party under Gabbay winning 20-24 seats, but the party was already poised to drive off a cliff.
Gabbay came into the party like a whirlwind, with a sense of having cracked the secrets of politics. He didn’t understand that he had been elected not because he had run a brilliant campaign or because he had exceptional leadership abilities, but simply because the desperation that had gripped Labor members had prompted them to vote for any new guy. Very soon, he started fighting with almost all the senior Labor officials, who felt that he was treating them with arrogance and condescension. Even MKs who supported Gabbay in the primaries, such as Eitan Cabel, Yossi Yona and Miki Rosenthal, were treated dismissively.
Nevertheless, Labor Knesset members gave their new leader, who at first was still taking off in the polls, their total support. Even faction members, who are known for their tendency to tie the hands of the party leader and then cut off their heads, aligned themselves with him, obediently. When Gabbay wanted to change the party charter to give himself unprecedented authority that even former leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Peres hadn’t had, none of the MKs—other than Peretz—dared object, and the Labor Central Committee approved the move almost unanimously. They did so even though the change struck a fatal blow to the party’s democratic tradition and moved it in the direction of autocratic parties such as Yisrael Beitenu or Yesh Atid.
Even after Gabbay made a series of unfortunate remarks and embarrassing scandals involving him were revealed, party members kept quiet. No one wanted to be accused of friendly fire and preventing the party chairman from winning the election. When Gabbay announced that he would evacuate settlements, a position that contradicted one of the party’s fundamental principles—only MK Itzik Shmuli said something. In a modest tweet, Shmuli stated that he disagreed with the party leader’s position. The other Labor MKs stayed silent.
Gabbay continued to blunder, and apparently anger at him began to build up behind the scenes. The watershed moment arrived when the party chairman repeated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that “the Left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” For many party members and supporters, that was going too far. They realized that Gabbay wasn’t the man they thought he was—but it was too late. From there on, the party began to tumble in the polls and finished the Knesset election at an all-time low.
In the past few days, Gabbay and his close associates have been trying to promote two narratives designed to “exonerate” the chairman from responsibility for the party’s crash and burn. The first story holds that the old guard of the Labor party had never accepted Gabbay, the “new guy,” being elected chairman and had tried to undermine him at every turn. The second claim is that no one could have secured a better result for the party when faced with the Blue and White Party under Benny Gantz.
Both these claims are attempts to rewrite history. Again, Gabbay enjoyed unprecedented support from senior party officials and members long after he was elected chairman, and even after he started making one mistake after another. And as far as Blue and White and Gantz: Gantz’s run for prime minister was mainly the result of Gabbay’s failure to present a viable alternative to Netanyahu. When Gantz entered politics, the Labor Party was already in a freefall in the polls, and it was clear that Gabbay posed no threat to the Likud or Netanyahu.
Now, the oldest party in the country is at a point that could mark the end of its historical journey. It’s obvious to everyone that the Labor party today has no potential to regain power, and the chances it will ever rehabilitate itself are slim to none. Members are split: some believe the time has come to close the door on the historic enterprise, and others think that Labor can still be reborn as a niche socio-democratic left-wing party.
Although former party chairman Amir Peretz still holds a senior role in the shriveling party, there is a sense that the time has come for a new generation to step up. Even Peretz is not sure he wants to run for leader, and has his eye on running for president in another two years or so. Many believe that young MKs Shmuli and Stav Shaffir, who both came up in the social justice protests of 2011 and who have their own fierce, if hidden, rivalry, will compete for leadership of the party.
Another issue is a possible unification with Meretz, or even an arrangement with the moderate wing of the Arab parties to set up an entirely new party. While Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg supports the idea, Labor is divided. The party is still home to a strong “security” faction whose members can’t identify with the discourse of Meretz and the far left. There is concern that a merger like that could push the security and defense Laborites over to Blue and White or other parties.
Former Labor chairman Isaac Herzog said this week that the Labor Party might have completed its historic task. Herzog still enjoys widespread support among party members, many of whom are still beating themselves up for pushing him out after the Zionist Union won 24 seats in the 2015 election—a number that is now beyond their wildest dreams. When Herzog, who is considered part of the party’s backbone, said that, it had a major effect of party activists.
Gabbay, who refused to resign on the night of Labor’s electoral failure, caved to pressure on Wednesday and announced that he would move up the party primaries and step down. But the challenges that will face his successor—whoever that might be—could turn out to be too great to overcome. It’s possible that the current term will be the last in the Knesset for the party that founded the nation and is now heading for the history books.
This story originally appeared on Israel Hayom.