In a pessimistic scenario, the Israeli Labor Party could be wiped out in upcoming elections. In an optimistic scenario, the party could hang on by the seat of its pants. But Amir Peretz, the ailing party’s flailing new leader, is not just an optimist—he thinks he’s a magician. And he believes his new assistant, Orly Levy-Abekasis, will help him capture the Holy Grail of Israeli politics—and make right-wing votes levitate stage left, away from Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling, right-wing Likud party.
Israelis have two choices on the Zionist left for the elections on Sept. 17 (if we ignore the centrist Blue and White), representing two divergent paths. On July 18, former Defense Minister and current Labor Party leader Peretz shocked the Israeli political scene by announcing a joint run with the Gesher Party. Led by former Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker Levy-Abekasis, Gesher ran a campaign focused on what Israelis call chevrati issues, which means “social” or “real life” concerns like welfare and health care, although in Israel’s woefully underdeveloped economic discourse, nobody knows whether this means more or less government. But Gesher failed to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25% in April’s elections, winning only 75,000 votes.
In the alliance of Peretz and Levy-Abekasis, the ticket has two Mizrahi leaders—one born in Morocco, the other to a Moroccan father. They come from Israel’s geographic and social periphery—Sderot and Beit Shean. They are focusing on social issues, and politely forgetting Levy-Abekasis’ past in Avigdor Liberman’s nationalist (and arguably anti-Arab) party. And unlike much of the left, they are absolutely not allergic to Netanyahu and have not ruled out serving in his cabinet. They hope this combination will help them pinch votes from the soft-right, and particularly from among the 153,000 people who voted for the center-right Kulanu last time and need a new home now that Moshe Kahlon has taken his satellite party back into the Likud.
The joint Peretz and Levy-Abekasis ticket presents more than a superficial contrast with the new Democratic Union: a merger between the left-wing Meretz and Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party, with the acquisition of Stav Shaffir from Labor. The Democratic Union’s leadership would be eclectic in any other country—a former army chief, a gay man, and a young woman—but is remarkably homogeneous for a platform that is claiming to speak for “the people.” The triumvirate of Nitzan Horowitz, Stav Shaffir, and Ehud Barak are all secular Ashkenazim from cosmopolitan Tel Aviv. Demographically, the rest of their list is very similar (with the exception of one Arab and one Mizrahi woman in the top 10). There may not be a huge gap between the policies of Peretz’s Labor Party and Barak’s Democratic Union—not that Israeli parties ever produce detailed policy pledges—but culturally and ideologically, they’re a world away. Greater than the distance from Tel Aviv to Sderot.
The Democratic Union wants to merge with Labor for these elections, but Peretz and Levy-Abekasis are having none of it. They want to take votes from the right, and specifically—from the Mizrahi working class—residents of towns like Sderot, Yerucham, and Dimona, who vote overwhelmingly for right-wing parties despite the fact, as Labor argues, the right is not really representing their interests. The Democratic Union is worried they’ll just take votes from the left and hand them over to the right, propping up a Netanyahu government. After all, Levy-Abekasis would have gladly joined a Netanyahu government after April’s elections if appointed health minister. And Peretz’s dream of succeeding Rivlin as president is no secret, and impossible to fulfil from the opposition benches.
Just look at the places where Gesher did well in April compared to Meretz. In Levy-Abekasis’ hometown of Beit Shean, Gesher won 7.45%—four times its national average. Meretz won a paltry 0.23%. In Tel Aviv, Meretz won 9%; Gesher, 1.8%.
The Israeli left is in severe crisis for reasons that are unique to Israel: the trauma of the second intifada and shattered hopes of the Gaza disengagement among them. But the Israeli left also shares the same malaise as social democratic parties across Europe, where the coalition between the metropolitan, cosmopolitan elite and urban working class is breaking down. In Britain, the Labor Party is being hollowed out by defections to the Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party; in France, the Social Democrats have evaporated into support for Macron on the one hand, and the far right and far left on the other; in Germany, the Greens and AfD have eaten into the Social Democrats’ traditional heartlands. For voters who abandon left-wing parties for the right, the rhetoric of the cosmopolitan left is at best alien, and at worst off-putting.
The same has arguably happened in Israel, but with the added historical baggage of resentments toward the secular, Ashkenazi, Tel Aviv bubble for condescending to the rest of a traditionalist, largely Mizrahi country. When the Democratic Union waves the banner of human rights and peace, it’s just not talking the language of the “left behinds” in development towns. Levy-Abekasis quit Yisrael Beiteinu in 2017 when it entered the coalition because she felt it was not doing enough to promote social issues—not because of its support for the death penalty, loyalty oaths for Arabs, settlement construction, Nation-State Law, curtailing the powers of the courts, and attacks on civil society. Labor-Gesher is targeting communities that won’t vote for a party that offers to help them economically but bangs on about these controversial “cultural” issues.
The dilemma facing the Israeli left is essentially this: Does it try to rebuild the metropolitan middle-class/urban working-class coalition through a united left-wing front—or does it admit that coalition is beyond repair, and they are better off making a pincer movement? In other words: Do they conclude the marriage is over, but they should still remain friends? As Amir Peretz told Yediot Aharonot: “If I had decided to go with Meretz, I’d have felt more comfortable. The leader of a safe party with 8-10 seats. We chose the difficult path.”
Israeli politics is like a mix between Twister and Risk, and tactical alliances are always shifting. If Peretz and Levy-Abekasis can pull a right-wing rabbit out of their hat, they might start reconfiguring the political map. If they fail, however—they might just saw the Israeli left in half.
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