The Israeli Labor Party on Tuesday elected a new leader, Amir Peretz, to lead the faction ahead of Israel’s upcoming general election on 17 September. Faced with a choice between the old guard and two young, dynamic candidates, the party membership opted for the former.
In doing so, the ailing party has signed its own death warrant. Never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, the Israeli left has once again turned to the past, afraid of tackling the difficult questions required to rebuild a meaningful opposition to over 40 years of right-wing rule.
Hello Peretz, old friend
Amir Peretz can hardly be said to have swept to victory yesterday. The veteran politician received 47 per cent of the vote in a primary which saw a 46 per cent turnout, the lowest in the party’s history.
Peretz had tried to avoid holding a leadership election at all, hoping that the party’s central committee would select him as its new chair in light of his decades of political experience. Instead, the vote was put to the party’s some 65,000 members, in what was at the time perceived as a blow to Peretz’s aspirations.
He nonetheless prevailed, taking over the leadership of a once-dominant party from Avi Gabbay, who many have accused of running the party into the ground. His infighting with Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni and her brutal dismissal from the Zionist Union alliance in January, as well as his failure to position Labor as a meaningful alternative to the centrist or right-wing parties, has been blamed for the party’s dire performance in April’s general election.
The party won a historically-low six seats, a third of the 18 it held in the previous Knesset (or 24 if you count the contribution of Livni’s Hatnua to the Zionist Union). If the Labor Party wasn’t already calling for Gabbay’s head, revelations that he had mulled a proposition to join Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition in a last-ditch effort to form a majority government ended any hopes of resurrection he may have harboured.
So who is his successor? Born in Morocco, Peretz’s early life follows the pattern of many a Mizrahim – immigration to Israel in the 1950s, settlement in a development town, engagement in local politics. Having served as Mayor of Sderot, he was elected to Knesset in 1988, making him the longest-serving current Knesset Member (MK).
In 1995 he became chairman of the Histadrut, Israel’s powerful trade union federation which predates even the state itself. Modern-day Histadrut chairman, Arnon Ben-David, on Tuesday gave Peretz’s leadership bid his endorsement, as did representatives of the Kibbutz movement and a number of former MKs.
Peretz served briefly as Labor leader from 2005-07, but when he pulled the party from the ruling coalition, thus triggering an election, he was defeated by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. His election as Labor Party head has been interpreted as a blow to Barak, who last week announced he would run in September’s election and is thought to harbour ambitions of leading a united left-wing alliance.
So what, one may ask, is the problem with Peretz? There is little doubt that he boasts an impressive career replete with the necessary credentials to lead a left-wing political party. Perhaps one could argue that, having paid his dues, now is simply his time.
Yet – and with all the respect which should be afforded to such a veteran politician – Peretz’s election as head of the Labor Party represents an acceptance of the status quo, a yearning for the past, a reliance on the tried-and-tested old guard. Despite the presence of two young, dynamic alternatives in Stav Shaffir and Itzik Shmuli, the party membership still opted for Peretz.
Shaffir and Shmuli have been earmarked as rising stars within the Labor Party, having risen to prominence as leaders of Israel’s 2011 “social justice protests”, which saw hundreds of thousands of protesters descend on Tel Aviv to oppose Israel’s rising cost of living, housing shortages and deterioration in public services. The protests were a rare example of social mobilisation in a country in which “tribal” and religious affiliations, as opposed to class and societal issues, stir emotions and prompt political action.
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At 34 and 39-years-old respectively, Shaffir and Shmuli were seen as offering a fresh face for a tired Labor Party, using social media to announce their candidacies and calling on an electorate weary of “sitting on the fence and waiting” to “get up and take power into [their] own hands”.
Yet as yesterday’s vote neared, the pair began to trade barbs, “sniping” at one another, as one Israeli daily noted in a thinly-veiled jab at their apparent childishness. Though Shmuli called on Shaffir to stand down lest they split the vote and hamper their chances of victory, the latter indignantly refused.
Shmuli’s warning proved prophetic – Shaffir won 26.9 per cent of the vote while Shmuli won 26.3 per cent. Though of course nothing is guaranteed, had one dropped out the other could have beaten Peretz to the top spot. It is perhaps this short-sightedness which most clearly exposed the pair’s inexperience, putting personal interest before the needs of the party.
As Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer eloquently noted of the outcome, “it seems that the long-suffering [Labor] party members felt that appointing thirtysomethings whose experience, beyond their six years apiece as MKs, was literally as social justice warriors, was a bit too much for the party that founded Israel and ruled it for half its history.”
Where Israeli politics goes to die
Yet though Israeli Labor members may not have been ready to take the leap of faith needed to elect Shaffir or Shmuli as party head, it is exactly this radical reassessment that the Israeli left needs.
Though commentators hark back to the left’s heady days as the founding ideologues of the state, today the left is where Israeli politics goes to die. This wistful thinking takes no account of modern day Israel, in which “leftist” has become an insult repeated at whim by Netanyahu and his ilk, a catch-all term for the media, the judiciary and any political opponents who threaten the right-wing bloc’s grip on power.
Likewise, discussions of “peace” and a “solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict – once the left-wing’s stomping ground – are nowhere to be seen in election campaigning. Instead, the peace process is left to be refashioned into a “hot IPO” by Jared Kushner, senior advisor to the US President, and his cohort of businessmen and bureaucrats.
Sure, the fact that Peretz “carries around with him a detailed and serious peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict […] contrasts favourably with Shmuli and Shaffir, who have no known views” on the topic. In an era in which a $50 billion Palestinian pay-off is the only option under discussion, this should not be taken lightly.
Despite this, “detailed and serious” is not going to inspire disillusioned left-wing voters to back the Labor Party in September, or indeed peak the curiosity of centrists tempted to jump ship. It is not going to prevent the self-cannibalisation of the left more broadly, as new and old parties alike jostle for position in an already-overcrowded bloc. Most crucially, it is not going to win a fight against an unorthodox opponent in the form of Netanyahu, who will say anything, do anything and rip up every rulebook to hold onto his position as prime minister.
The left can do nothing to affect change as long as it stays in opposition and remains too weak to present a serious counter to the right-wing’s dominance. Only time will tell whether Peretz can use his wealth of experience to revitalise his long-time ideological heartland. If he fails, perhaps we will look back at Tuesday’s party primary as evidence that the left never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.