On July 4, the Labor Party will be holding new primaries. The event has been treated as a bit of a joke by most of the media, which has focused on the large number of contestants, pointing out that the number of candidates is only a little lower than the number of seats opinion polls forecast for Labor if elections were held today.
Of the eight candidates who are still in the running, only five (all men) are serious contenders. Four of them are members of the current Knesset – MKs Isaac Herzog, Amir Peretz, Erel Margalit, Omer Bar-Lev, and one is a newcomer to the Labor Party, former environment minister Avi Gabai, who was one of the founders of Kulanu but chose not to run for the Knesset, and was appointed by Moshe Kahlon as one of his ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government. Gabai resigned after Moshe Ya’alon was replaced in the Defense Ministry by Avigdor Liberman.
Most of the media, and apparently of the general public, assume that Labor has lost its capacity to lead the country, and that consequently, the identity of its leader is of little importance. They also assume that the majority of Israelis are staunch right-wingers, and that therefore the liberal and social democratic parties in Israel – including Labor – are passé ideologically.
This assumption is inaccurate. In terms of their socioeconomic outlook the majority of Israelis support social-democratic positions, including a mixed (public/ private) economy, the welfare state and organized labor. On the issue of the two-state solution versus a single state West of the River Jordan, the majority do not believe the former is currently feasible, but do not object to it in principle. The majority certainly does not support a single state in which five million Palestinians – a majority of them disenfranchised – live.
Given this reality what Israel needs is a prime minister who is not enamored of neo-liberal economics and the fickle billionaires it produces, is a patriotic Israeli but also committed to the concepts of human rights and pluralism and who knows a thing or two about realpolitik and the art of compromise. That is not the sort of prime minister Israel currently has.
The ideal would be a charismatic leader from the Center. Unfortunately, except for the years 2005-2009 when Kadima was predominant under leaders who had broken away from the Likud (Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert), the Center has not produced any effective leaders. MK Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid and the current contender for the title “leader of the Center,” is embarrassingly shallow and unsophisticated, besides showing worrying signs of smug narcissism.
This leads to the conclusion that what the Labor Party needs, in order to remain a central player in the political game, is a charismatic leader who is not perceived as a leftie par excellence. In addition, despite Labor’s glorious past as the main political force in the foundation of the State of Israel and its navigator through the stormy seas of the first 29 of its existence, large parts of the population still associate Labor with the Mapai establishment that treated the new immigrants from Arab countries with insensitive, condescending arbitrariness, while ostracizing and humiliating the veterans of the Irgun and Lehi. Consequently, anyone directly associated with the old elites is still viewed as “contaminated” by large sections of the population.
Of the five relevant candidates for the Labor leadership one, Peretz, is marked as a leftie, and two (Herzog and Bar-Lev) are sons of the old elite. Only Margalit and Gabai have a more or less “clean slate,” so to speak. Both, incidentally, are self-made men with an impressive record of achievements, plenty of self-confidence and much more charisma than the other three.
Of the two I prefer Gabai, who seems much more controlled and self-possessed, projects greater credibility and is more likely to appeal to sections of the population that have been alienated from Labor since the 1977 political upheaval that brought the Likud to power. I also believe that he has a much better chance of forming an effective bloc to bring down Netanyahu than does Herzog (who constantly speaks of the idea), and is more likely than Peretz (they are both of Moroccan origin) to increase support for Labor among Mizrahim.
GABAI REPRESENTS a different type of Israeli politician of Mizrahi origin, who does not share the vulgar and insolent chauvinism of the likes of MKs Miri Regev, David Bitan, Yaron Mazuz, Miki Zohar and Oren Hazan, the anti-Ashkenazi obsession of the radical Mizrahi Left or the pseudo-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) mannerisms of Shas. He does not apologize for, and does not raise instinctive objections as a result of who or what he is.
True, he does not have any serious political experience, though he seems to have sharp political instincts, and views French President Emmanuel Macron as something of a role model. Opinion polls suggest he has a good chance of being one of the two candidates who will contend next week in the second round, opposite Herzog or Peretz.
Should he end up winning he will initially have two challenges: rallying the whole party behind him, and running the party without being a member of the 20th Knesset. To deal with both challenges he will require a good deal of intuitiveness and ingenuity.
But then again, it might be Herzog and Peretz who reach the second round, and then what was is what will be – which simply isn’t good enough.