The Identity Crisis of Israeli Labour

The Israeli Labour Party, the party of Government from 1948-1977 is in terminal decline, unable to find a clear identity or establish itself as a serious alternative to the Likud, Israel’s current governing party. After its ignominious split with the Hatnuah Party, when Labour leader Avi Gabbay defenestrated Tsipi Livni live on TV, it faces near-elimination, with polls suggesting the party will win just 8 seats to Likud’s 31. But polls also suggest that Israeli voters have relatively progressive views. So why does this not translate into votes for Labour?

The Israeli Labour party’s dilemma is part of the wider decline of centre-left parties in Western democracies. In each case there will be specific, contextually unique problems that centre-left parties will be facing; however there is one fundamental similarity that transcends borders.

Centre-right parties have guaranteed viability as long as the nation-state remains the foundation of the political order. This is because centre-right, conservative, parties are able to appeal to perennial and visceral sentiments of attachment, belonging, identity, and myth. These issues are frequently nebulous, but through rhetoric and presentation they can be effectively mobilised for electoral benefit. This allows centre-right parties to tread water even during difficult spells, without being required to articulate specific policy platforms. Likud, in the 2015 election, did not even issue a manifesto. Instead, Netanyahu made this appeal: “With your help and God’s help, we will form a nationalist government that will protect the State of Israel.”

Voters, in Israel and elsewhere, support centre-left parties based on a more instrumentalist study of politics. Identity will still be important for many voters, who may define their outlook based on internationalism, egalitarianism and other left-leaning values. But for most centre-left voters these attachments are unlikely to run deep. Instead, voters are more inclined to choose centre-left parties because of a desire to see certain policy goals fulfilled – for instance, greater public funding for services, legislation to improve the rights of minority groups and policies related to trade unions. Of course this happens on the right as well, but not to the same extent. Thus when Netanyahu says the left have “forgotten what it means to be Jewish”, he is not engaging in a policy debate, but appealing to deeper and more intrinsic values.

Labour last won elections in 1992 and 1999. Both had instrumentalist foundations. At the time, there was a significant groundswell of support for negotiations with Israel’s Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians. Labour was viewed as the party most amenable to such negotiations – a Likud under Yitzhak Shamir, and even a Likud under Netanyahu (during his first term from 1996-99), was not that party; Labour under Rabin and then Barak were. Perhaps more importantly, as former IDF Chiefs of Staff, they were able to talk about security with confidence and experience. This enabled them to present peace talks as feasible, not just desirable.

This dynamic has now dramatically shifted. No longer do Israelis view peace negotiations as an issue of great salience; while still desirable, Israelis are unlikely to be convinced of their feasibility. Peace was made with Jordan in 1994, Syria is in flames, and the repeated failure of the Palestinian track has led to deep disillusionment with the peace process. Israelis may still favour a theoretical two-state solution, but they largely buy the argument that “there is no partner for peace”.

This is the core of Labour’s problem: what is its purpose? Israel ‘s economy is strong – cost of living problems exist, but other parties, such as Kulanu, also base their messages around this issue. Israel has been relatively secure in a hugely turbulent region. The Likud policy of strategic patience, while possibly misguided in the long term, seems to be effective in the short-term. There is little appetite for serious peace talks in Israel and Labour certainly do not seem to be attempting to convince anyone otherwise. If they are unable to seriously oppose the government, they will struggle to present themselves as a genuine alternative to the government.

Out of power for close to two decades, and without a clear raison d’être, Labour is suffering from long term stagnation, turning into decay. Whether this drawn-out crisis will be existential may well be revealed in the April election.