One of my favorite jokes growing up told of a group of prisoners in the Gulag who were finally fed up with their miserable conditions and worked up the courage to complain. To their surprise, their warden listened attentively, and then asked them what could be done to sweeten the terms of their imprisonment. Moved, one prisoner said it would be nice to finally change underwear. The warden thought it over, and then agreed. “No problem!” he said. “Sasha, you swap underwear with Vassily, and Dimitri, you swap with Igor.”
The poor souls who still vote for the Israeli Labor Party, fewer and fewer of them every year, may empathize. This week, they’ve again indulged in the party’s tradition of dethroning one failed leader and swapping her or him for another just as listless. In this case, the departing dauphin is the affable but ineffectual Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, and his likely successor is the fumbling Amir Peretz, best remembered in the collective Israeli imagination as a short-term defense minister who once infamously posed for a photo op while looking through a pair of binoculars without bothering to first remove their caps. The image resonated because it was, and remains, an apt metaphor for Labor’s woes: The party likes to pretend it’s resolute, but its ability to see clearly is compromised by its own inherent ideological blinders. That Peretz managed to advance to the second round of the party’s primaries—his opponent is Avi Gabay, a newcomer to Labor from the newfangled Kulanu party who, just like Peretz before him, had served as a minister for environmental protection in Bibi Netanyahu’s cabinet—is all the evidence you need that the party is continuing its spiraling descent into oblivion.
It’s difficult to think of another political implosion so spectacular—Labor was in power for the first three decades of Israel’s existence, and remained a significant electoral force for three more decades thereafter before beginning its march into the margins—but there’s no joy in watching Labor fumble. What we can and should learn from the party’s sad spectacle is the lesson of what happens when an ideological bloc abandons its commitment to real-world policies and concrete values and flirts instead with the potent toxins of identity politics and theatrical outrage.
The 30,884 Labor members who troubled themselves this week to go vote for a new party boss—about a quarter of those who show up for the Likud primaries, and a far less diverse group, hailing mostly from kibbutzim up north and large urban areas in central Israel—weren’t voting for a bold new vision. On questions of national security, Labor has offered no ideas that differ considerably from Netanyahu’s. All its itinerant leaders could muster was the promise that they’re not Bibi, and could, therefore, spark some sort of magical multilateral peace talks by sheer force of personality, as if the only real obstacle to reconciliation with the Palestinians was the obdurate streak of Israel’s prime minister. Most Israelis recognized this analysis as an infantile fantasy and moved away.
Labor isn’t much better when it comes to sketching out an economic platform. To the left’s horror, Netanyahu’s fiscal policies have led to a continuing growth, as well as to a decline in unemployment. But don’t confuse Peretz with the facts: In an interview he gave last month, he repeated the mantra he and the party have been peddling for years, calling for robust government expenditures that most economists agree will do little but run up a massive debt for future generations to pay off.
But while Labor is short on vision, its most prominent politicians have perfected the art of public posturing. Erel Margalit, for example, a wealthy entrepreneur turned lawmaker, spent millions on a failed bid to lead the party that consisted mostly of shouting and using profanities in an effort to show he was every bit as tough as Bibi. Merav Michaeli, a former television anchor, has made gender pronouns her banner, a very exciting cause in two or three neighborhoods of Tel Aviv but one that fails to excite anyone anywhere else. And Shelly Yachimovich, another bumbling former party boss, spent most of her energy this year in a failed bid to take over the Histadrut, the large labor union Labor has traditionally controlled, and then, once defeated, taking her opponent to court. Is it any wonder that voters are staying away?
With Labor no longer an option for most Israelis, at least for now, many, including some lifelong lefties, are flocking to the Likud. As Haaretz reported earlier this year, the party in power is enjoying thousands of new members eager to reorient its priorities and shape it into a true centrist force. And the party seems to welcome the change: Among its new lawmakers are Sharren Haskel, a young Canadian-born environmentalist who is pursuing green initiatives, and Amir Ohana, a former Shin Bet officer and Likud’s first openly gay MK. If you truly care about passing laws that fight water pollution, say, or surrogacy for gay couples wishing to have children, you’re much more likely to find an attentive ear in Bibi’s coalition than in the increasingly desperate oppositional chorus that is rich in sound and fury but, sadly, signifies nothing.
The Democrats ought to study’s Labor’s demise closely, as should those hoping to rid its British counterpart of the noxious Jeremy Corbyn. Left-leaning parties ought to have much to offer at this particular moment in time, from fighting the economic ravages of the sharing economy to advocating for smarter international coalitions in defense of human rights. If they adhere to nothing better than a warmed-over socialism coated with identity-based grievances, they can expect to join Amir Peretz and company in the pit of political despair.
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