Analysis: Labor goes back to the future with Peretz

Photo: עט הזמיר, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In a back to the future move, Amir Peretz last night succeeded Avi Gabbay as the next leader of the party that built the modern State of Israel. 67-year-old Peretz – who led Labor from 2005 to 2007 – beat two younger candidates famed for leading Israel’s 2011 social justice protests, Stav Shaffir, 34, and Itzik Shmuli, 39.

Peretz won 47 percent of the vote in the all-member ballot compared to Shaffir’s 26.9 percent and Shmuli’s 26.3 percent. This was enough — more than the requisite 40 percent — to be crowned the outright winner and avoid a second round of voting that would have been a head-to-head contest with second-place finisher Shaffir.

Thirty-thousand Labor members, 46 percent of the party’s membership, voted in the election at 105 polling stations across the country. The voting was extended amid widespread protests by Israel’s Ethiopian community against police violence, which held up traffic across Israel. The contest was triggered when Gabbay announced his resignation following the party’s worst-ever election result. In the April election, Labor dropped from the 24 Knesset seats it received as part of the Zionist Union in 2015 to just six. In total, the party gained only 4.43 percent of the national vote.

The leadership election pitted the veteran Peretz against a new generation.

Shaffr and Shmuli both entered the Knesset in 2013 on the back of their leadership in the 2011 social justice protests. They campaigned on their youth and appealed to party members looking for a new direction following the party’s historic-low performance in the last election. However, with turnout down by 13 percent from the last primary, neither of the new generation candidates were able to turn this enthusiasm into votes at the polls, despite Shaffir’s dynamic social media campaign and voter drive succeeding in attracting 4,000 new young members to sign up in order to vote for her.

Both candidates attempted to argue that they represent the change that their struggling party needs to rebuild itself, whilst Peretz represents the party’s old, failed image.

Peretz, however, played on his experience, both as a minister and a party veteran, to claim that only he has the political clout to restore Labor’s status as a major player. He served as deputy prime minister when Labor was the junior coalition partner in Ehud Olmert’s Kadima-led government. During that period, he bolstered his all-important security credentials by serving as defence minister, although, after the 2006 Second Lebanon War, his record came under fire from the Winograd Commission. Seen as on the left in terms of domestic politics, he has also struck a notably dovish line in the past in terms of the peace process. For Peretz, striking a deal with the Palestinians and tackling Israel’s social problems are interlinked. The conflict, he suggests, turns voters who might otherwise back Labor to the right because of their fears about security, and diverts much-needed resources to the settlements. While failing to win the 2006 general election, Peretz nonetheless has proved capable in the past of winning over right-leaning voters in the development towns: in 1983, he was elected mayor of Sderot, ending Likud’s long hold on local politics there.

A real labour movement man, as well as previously leading the Labor party, Peretz is a former chair of the Histadrut trade union. However, his past relationship with Labor is not without complexity. He has twice quit and rejoined the party, leaving in 1999 to form the One Nation party, which merged with Labor in 2005, and then joining Hatnua in 2012. He rejoined Labor in 2015.

Peretz decided to postpone his victory celebrations due to protests over the fatal shooting of Ethiopian Israeli teen Solomon Tekah by an off-duty police officer. “I’ve decided not to hold my victory celebration in light of the deep rift [in Israeli society] that is being intensified in front of our very eyes and the protest of the Ethiopian community. This outburst expresses the sense of discrimination they have been carrying for many years. Tomorrow we’ll do everything that is required to reunite the party and make it to a political home for every Israeli,” Peretz said last night.

Despite the many challenges facing Israel’s once-dominant party, the leadership elections showed why Labor has been ranked as the most democratic party in Israel. While it is easy to portray Labor as constantly feuding and with a culture that devours its leaders – since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Labor has had 10 leaders compared with only four Likud party heads in their entire history – this must be viewed within the democratic context in which the party operates. As Gideon Rahat and Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute argue “despite all its drawbacks, internal democracy has a positive impact on critical functions of the parties, such as ensuring underserved sectors of society are represented, stimulating ideological renaissance, and meeting voters’ needs.”

Israel’s electoral laws place a far greater regulatory burden on parties with a rigorous internal democracy than the newly popular “leader parties” headed by one all-powerful individual. As Rahat and Kenig explain, “this means it’s the parties governed through internal democratic processes that receive negative publicity while the image of those parties that don’t hold internal party elections remains untarnished. It’s a lopsided reality in which the ‘open’ — more democratic — parties, which should be more popular with voters, are penalized for the internal processes they so painstakingly uphold.”

Indeed, it is Labor’s relationship with this new type of party – particularly Blue and White and former Labor leader and prime minister Ehud Barak’s new, as-yet-unnamed party [see below] – that may be the more significant story than the winner of yesterday’s leadership election.

During the election, all three contenders to some degree supported running jointly in the next election with Barak or with the left-wing Meretz. At the last election, with the centre and centre-left vote split multiple ways, Labor were squeezed from both sides. More pragmatic voters went right towards Blue and White, correctly viewing the centrist party as best-placed to lead an alternative government, whilst voters on the left, some of whom were already put off by Gabbay’s rhetoric in an attempt to win over centre-right voters, turned to Meretz due to fear that Israel’s most dovish party would miss out on Knesset seats altogether. This situation is only complicated by the return of Barak to the political scene with another new party.

Peretz has wasted no time in pursuing potential collaborations. He has already appointed former MK Omer Bar-Lev to conduct the negotiations with Blue and White, Meretz and Barak on his behalf, as well as with others who may be interested in joining a broad centre-left ticket, including former MK Orly Levi-Abekasis, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, former Shin Bet security service director Yuval Diskin and former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot. The goal is to create “a large, united democratic force to oppose the right headed by Netanyahu,” he said.

The new leader has little time to rest on his laurels, with Israel’s unprecedented second 2019 election due to take in just over two months. Peretz faces an uphill battle to restore Labor to its former glories and collaboration with other left-of-centre parties is widely seen is the best way to halt the slide in the party’s fortunes.

The three key figures in the parties Labor may now seek to ally with were quick to congratulate Peretz and extend the hand of friendship. Benny Gantz from Blue and White announced that the two of them will meet soon; Barak tweeted that “I believe that we can do what is necessary and stand together, together with other forces, in order to bring Israel back on track”; and newly elected Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz said that “we at Meretz are ready to talk about cooperation for the success of the Israeli left. I expect to speak to Amir in the coming days.”

Peretz echoed these calls, stating “the first and most important thing to do is to unite the [centre-left] bloc.”

However, some analysts fear that Peretz’s victory may be a blow to those seeking a united anti-Bibi bloc. Yossi Verter reported that Barak was hoping for a Shaffir or Shmuli victory, with either then being willing to run as his No. 2 in the name of unity. A veteran politician such as Peretz may be less amenable to such an arrangement.

In a call to unite the party, Peretz thanked Shmuli and Shaffir, who he described as “an important part of the leadership of this party and the next generation.” Peretz also pledged that his leadership term would be short, two years at most. The young ones still have time, he said. The defeated candidates both offered their congratulations to the new leader. In a tweet last night, Shaffir added that “from tomorrow morning we are turning to the real struggle against the right and replacing Netanyahu’s corrupt government.”

Labor’s success in the real struggle against the right may be determined by whether Peretz can succeed in uniting those who are opposed to Netanyahu. If he fails and the centre-left is once again divided, the outlook for those hoping for a shift in Israel’s leadership may, regrettably, be bleak