J14 fades into grey in Labor primaries: New faces, old politics

The most important news about the Labor primaries is the depressing scarcity of news – most of the list  belies the same old politics Israeli voters grew weary of years ago. Even J14 has not managed to breathe new life into the party – and the most prominent new figure on the ballot had to fight her way in past her own party leader. 

Israel’s Labor party, widely viewed as the closest thing to an alternative to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, announced the results of its primaries on Friday, and its slate for the Knesset. The party is led by ex-journalist Shelly Yachimovich, the first woman in that position since Golda Meir led Labor’s antecedent Mapai in the 1960s-1970s. Unlike in Golda’s day, when Mapai saturated the country’s politics inside out and ruled nearly every institution, from parliament to union to local councils, this position is now far from an enviable one.

While Labor is currently set to just about double its eight seats to 18-20, and while the party is capitalising on the widespread social discontent brought to the fore by the 2011 J14 protests, it remains a far cry from challenging Netanyahu-Lieberman’s projected bloc of 34-40. For better or worse, Yachimovch’s chances of stepping deeper into Golda’s shoes and becoming prime minister are slim, and the largely lackluster list assembled under her leadership confirms this.

The entire realistic list (the top 20) is below. The most important aspect of it is the least remarkable: it is composed mostly of either stale old-timers clinging onto their seats by sheer power of habit, or party functionaries utterly unknown outside Labor circles. This will be addressed at the bottom of the post; what follows are notes on the newcomers.

*Make way: The most important and highest-ranking among the newcomers is journalist Merav Michaeli (no. 5), easily one of the most thoughtful among Haaretz columnists and one of the two-three most prominent feminist voices in Israeli mainstream media. Although a celebrity and an extremely popular figure on the Left, Michaeli was reportedly stonewalled by Yachimovich and had to fight tooth and nail to get into the top 2o – without cattle-trading that we know of, without endorsements* against the resentment of party functionaries old and new.  Her close alliance with Yachimovich’s arch-rival Amir Peretz notwithstanding played an important part in keeping her on the ballot, but her election to the no. 5 – the top place reserved for women on the ballot, against party functionary and Yachimovich favorite Michal Biran -is nothing short of outstanding and propels her to the national political stage. Keep an eye on this newcomer.

*J14 confirms its failure to gather parliamentary momentum: When Labor launched its current bid for premiership it tried hard to pitch itself as the parliamentary voice of the 2011 protests; Yachimovich is even using photos of the completely extra-parliamentarian J14 protest in her campaign. But only two names that attained prominence in J14 are in the opening 20 on the slate, with one of those widely seen as a hack and an opportunist (student federation leader Itzik Shmuli, no. 12), and the other a committed but novice activist betting all she can on old-style politics and more than halfway down in the quicksand of that mirage of centrism.

That other one is Stav Shaffir (no. 9), the most popular and prominent among the “leadership” of J14 to run for parliament. Although her place in the Knesset appears to be guaranteed, activists and observers alike were left alarmed by the rapidity with which this fresh, streetwise candidate adopted the guarded language and political arsenal of a middle-of-the-road party functionary. Just a few months ago, Shaffir was still the young woman with a placard and a bullhorn who caused a prominent right-wing MK to nearly implode in self-parody, and who later traveled across the country with a few comrades in a second-hand car to try and see first-hand what hardships ordinary Israelis encounter away from the cameras – a highly commendable and extremely rare exercise. Today, she seems to have ditched much of what made her new and appealing in a scramble for the old political center, writing in Haaretz about her Palmach-veteran grandfather and her encounter as a child with Yitzhak Rabin, circulating a picture of herself seated in an IDF helicopter as an air force cadet (praising the struggle of women to become combat pilots, and Israeli feminism in general), and being extra-careful around contentious issues – not even criticising the IDF during the recent escalation in Gaza.

Despite the centrist lurch and despite being initially embraced by Yachimovich, Shaffir also had to fight a trench war to reach a realistic foothold in the party, at one point reportedly making a pact with the very embodiment of old politics, Mubarak crony Binyamin Ben Eliezer (no. 6). Friends and supporters still believe in Shaffir’s commitment and principle and see all these as sacrifices necessary to get elected in a centrist party running against a right-wing party; but the temptation to compromise for power only becomes stronger as one rises, and Shaffir will be challenged in the next year or two to show that she can stop sowing and start reaping. The first challenge could arise as early as the coalition talks, when Labor will more likely than not find itself as one of the fig leafs Netanyahu will be able to choose from to decorate his next, even more right-wing government.

Another J14 figure, Prof. Yossi Yonah, who chaired a group of academics advising the J14 movement, is at no.21 and is not likely to enter parliament.

*Nino Abesadze (no. 2o), is the only Kadima MK (at a time when Kadima was the opposition flagship) to explicitly ally herself with the J14 protest, spending all available time in the tent camps and generally building herself up as an approachable, down-to-earth MK whose enthusiasm and accessibility stood out starkly amongst Kadima’s desolate political landscape. She is also the leftmost Russian speaker in the departing Knesset, and, if Labor does scrape up 20 seats, the leftmost Russian speaker in the next one. She has also committed to bring Russian speakers forward as equal, integrated participants rather than a dependent and a beleaguered minority sector.

*On the face of it, three to four candidates associated with J14 were elected into fairly realistic spots on the ballot (unless something unexpected happens, like a union with Livni’s tautological party, which would push all Labor candidates down a notch). Why the headline? Because J14 was  such a powerful tidal wave against old politics that to see it wither down to a trickle of candidates clambering ashore does not feel like a triumph,to put it mildly. If a movement gets hundreds of thousands into the streets, breaks barriers, changes the political discourse, but in the end leaves the rest of the work to mostly the same wheelers and dealers it originally excluded from its activities, this means the movement, as a movement, failed to materialise into a genuine political force (whether it should’ve is a different question – I think it did not). J14’s primary contribution is injecting socio-economic discourse into the debate, but as Labor’s sycophantic conduct during the Gaza operation showed, it has not succeeded to construct or commandeer a political vehicle to maintain that discourse against assaults by the militarised-nationalist one.

*Miki Rosenthal, a tenacious investigative journalist who took on one of Israel’s most powerful tycoon dynasties, the Ofer Brothers, is at no. 13, and unless hobbled by his own party, can use his newfound position to very interesting effect inasmuch as links between major capital and government are concerned.

But as mentioned above, except another newcomer or two yet to acquire political notoriety, the rest of the list are party hacks young and old. This offers stark testimony both to the resilience of old Labor politics and to the true measure of the Labor leader’s political aptitude. Although this might well be the last election in which media pay Labor the courtesy of even pretending it’s a national force, Yachimovich let herself be bound hand and foot by intra-party commitments that bear no relevance to the actual electorate, and by repeatedly being overcautious when one should’ve been bold. Instead of bringing powerful new voices and leading them as first among equal, most of the truly exciting newcomers, especially Michaeli, had to fight for every inch of influence. The true results of these primaries will be tested over the next four years, but the old-new face of the Labor party makes it clearer than ever that the true merit of opposition to the next Netanyahu government will be measured by individuals, not by parties – not even the flagship one.

The full (realistic) Labor list: 

1. Shelly Yachimovich
2. Isaac Herzog
3. Amir Peretz
4. Eitan Cabel
5. Merav Michaeli
6. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer
7. Hilik Bar
8. Omer Bar-Lev
9. Stav Shaffir
10. Avishai Braverman
11. Erel Margalit
12. Itzik Shmuli
13. Mickey Rosenthal
14. Michal Biran
15. Nachman Shai
16. Moshe Mizrahi
17. Danny Atar
18. Ghaleb Majadele
19. Nadia Hilo
20. Nino Abesadze
21. Yossi Yonah

*This post has been updated and improved- when I sent it in, I wasn’t yet aware of Tal Schneider’s post detailing the alliance between Michaeli and Peretz; and an elaboration on J14 has been added following Elizabeth’s comment.