Pandering to the Right is a losing strategy for Labor

Israel’s Labor Party must decide what it stands for before the next round of elections. Without a true vision for the country, there’s really no reason it should win.

Newly elected head of the Israeli Labour party, Avi Gabbay, with outgoing Chairman Isaac Herzog (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)
Newly elected head of the Israeli Labour party, Avi Gabbay, with outgoing Chairman Isaac Herzog (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)

Avi Gabbay, the new head of Israel’s Labor Party, appears to be plotting a master strategy for winning elections, with laser-razor precision.

A largely unknown candidate, he is certainly aware that his first headlines will set voters’ image of him for years. His statements from the last few weeks leave little doubt about the first thing he wants them to know: I am no leftist.

First, he said Israel can have peace without dismantling settlements like Eli and Ofra—hard-core messianic settlements known for their ideology as much as their geography, deep inside the West Bank. Then he insisted he would not enter a coalition with the Joint List, the merger of three Arab parties. And this week, he lamented that the Left has been too committed to its liberal ways, at the expense of its Jewish heritage, reinforcing the notion, rather unique to Israeli Jewry, that the two are mutually exclusive.

It’s clear what he is trying to say, but it isn’t clear why Gabbay, the great blue-and-white hope of the Israeli Left, has taken the oldest and most brittle page from the dusty book of failed Labor strategy: convince right-wing voters to support Labor and shun the Left to win elections.

Far from a display of cunning strategic innovation, the move has been tried many times and failed just as many. Labor’s previous leader, Isaac Herzog, was the latest victim. In the 2015 campaign, certain advisors told him to beef up his security image, cutting an ad highlighting his military service in Israel’s intelligence and surveillance unit, and putting up billboards with giant, close-up photos of him squinting into the sunset. The colors and the crows’ feet were photoshopped; voters were derisive. In my day job as a pollster, I worked on that campaign. I always thought it was a mistake to try and out-security the Right.

Previous leaders fared no better. In 2013, Shelly Yachimovich dealt with the stigma of leftism by ignoring the conflict—she didn’t win. In 2006, Amir Peretz tried to prove his security mettle by accepting the post of defense minister, which nearly ended his career. In between, the great security symbol Ehud Barak briefly returned to lead the party, and in 2009 Labor received the lowest showing in its history with just 13 seats.

Why doesn’t it work?

To be fair, there is a logic behind the strategy. Labor is perceived as the country’s main left-wing party by voters, but only one-fifth of the Israeli public self-defines as left wing; many of those are Arabs who support the Joint List, or Meretz voters, peeling off roughly half of potential left-wing voters. To win, Labor needs more centrists, who make up roughly 30 percent of the electorate. A large portion of them are former left-wingers who still basically want to end the conflict and live in a liberal state, while rejecting the old arguments and tone of the Left. But Labor’s current 24 seats already get some of those votes, and it’s a crowded electoral camp. Yesh Atid and Kulanu have largely monopolized the centrist voters.

To achieve real victory, then, Labor concludes that it needs some voters from the Right. That bloc, including its moderate elements, makes up 45 percent of the total Israeli population and over 50 percent of the Jewish population. The distinction is important, since Jews have been the main source of voters for Labor ever since 2001, when 13 Arab civilians were killed by police during the start of the Second Intifada, under a Labor government. Arabs dropped Labor after that, and rather than try to win them back, Labor’s leaders presume time after time that “we have nothing to look for” among Arabs. Labor now looks to the Jewish Right.

The Right in Israel is characterized by a much stronger emphasis on security and nationalist-Jewish themes. Right-wing voters are more traditionally observant or religious, relative to the center and Left. Hence the simple, or simplistic answer is that winning means becoming more like them.

Except that it isn’t working. No survey since the last elections has shown Labor exceeding its current 24 seats in Knesset—almost all of them show a decline. It’s true that Labor’s numbers in public surveys are now higher than the dismal predictions prior to Gabbay’s primary victory in July, but still hovering between 19-21 seats—nowhere near victory. Centrist competitor Yesh Atid still does better, while Likud repeatedly wins.

But why should Labor win? Repeating a mantra such as “we’re actually right wing” for a decade can make a party believe its own strategy.

It’s easy to say that Labor always was right-wing on policy and hypocritical on rhetoric. Settlements and wars flourished under Labor governments.

Still, people join the Labor party and win seats on its list for a worldview that is genuinely distinct from the Right. Consider Merav Michaeli, Stav Shafir, Ksenia Svetlova, Ayelet Nahmias—these new faces did not join the party in recent years and become parliamentarians to advance a right-wing worldview. They are full of spirit, diverse experience and commitment to a broad liberal agenda, including support for a two-state solution—the opposite of Israel’s right-wing agenda.

Given who they are, the strategy of groveling to the right creates party dissonance and discontent on the inside. Outside, voters don’t know what the party stands for, or worse: they know what its people stand for, and they believe the leader is lying.

So who really represents Labor? Its “love me, I’m not a liberal” leaders, or its ideologically liberal, but probably frustrated, parliamentarians? Labor can’t answer, because it has become more focused on how to win than what it stands for. It projects an empty vessel.

Instead of chasing after tiny pockets of unlikely voters while alienating the base, Labor needs to define itself and let the voters make their choice. Following the voters means that people are not only unclear on what Labor stands for; they aren’t clear on whether it knows how to lead.

The Labor party should take a deep breath and internalize two undesirable truths:

First, Labor is very unlikely to win the next elections no matter what; accepting that should liberate the party from its pandering reflexes. Those just hoping for a victory of “the center-left bloc” can rest assured that this won’t happen because the soft-right suddenly votes Labor. If anything, they will try Kulanu or Yesh Atid. And since Moshe Kachlon of Kulanu recently vowed that his party would not enter a coalition government with Labor, the “bloc” strategy should not be driving party identity.

Second, brute honesty is the new art of campaigning. As the leader of a former communist country once mused to me, “it’s not so easy to fool the people anymore.”

When a party is fundamentally clear on what it is and what its central values are, then its positions on the conflict, economic and other urgent social issues will be intuitive and logical to the voters. The party will get credit for clarity and leadership, which excites people.

The vision

What should that core Labor identity be?

There is a gaping hole in Israel where there should be a large, mainstream party with a deep and comprehensive progressive worldview. That party should would state that conflict resolution is essential to national development, for the social, psychological, economic, global and military good of the country.

Such a party should map a plan for ending the bizarre conflation of religion and state in Israel, an anachronistic system that is anti-equality, anti-woman, anti-civil rights and stifles shared civic identity; it is a primitive violation of freedom of and from religion that makes a mockery of Jewish values.

That party will denounce toxic populist religious nationalism in both rhetoric and legislation, and harness Israel’s genuine liberal instincts on issues ranging from gender equality to same-sex rights. It will expand the set of progressive social issues in Israel to include full civic equality of Jews and Arabs, government and private sector accountability, even improving the environment. It will be the champion of Israeli democracy, the guardian of an independent judiciary,  and the fighter for freedom of expression.

Israel needs a party unafraid to say that ending the five-decade military regime is best for Israel, but also that this regime suffocates lives and robs people of their self-determination and is intolerable.

If this sounds like Meretz, it is important to note that there are many ways in which Labor is more appealing to the center that need not be lost. Additionally, a clear Labor platform could free Meretz to stake out a further-left position on the Israel political spectrum—or the opposite: merging is not a bad word in Israeli politics either.

Once Labor knows and says what it is, some will support it, others won’t. Labor may still lose elections for the near future. But without a true vision for the country, there’s really no reason it should win.