Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Labor Party, R.I.P. – Bad for Bibi

As is well known, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is in trouble – his tzores coming from numerous directions. First, three different, serious indictments, with the consolidated trials starting this coming January. Second, complete mismanagement of the Corona outbreak (“leading” the world today in per capita, daily infections) after the initial success in the first wave during March. And third, massive, ongoing protest demonstrations around the country – not just opposite the PM’s residence in Jerusalem – on both these issues.

It’s also no secret that Bibi is angling for new elections sometime in the coming months, because of (or despite) the above headaches. However, there’s a fourth problem that he will have to face, a highly paradoxical one that almost no one is talking about: the disappearance of the Likud’s traditional nemesis – Israel’s Labor Party (ILP).

The ILP was the dominant party that founded the newborn state in 1948 and ran the country (with smaller coalition partners) until 1977, when the Likud took over and has been in charge ever since, with a very few “interregnums”, not all led by the ILP. By the turn of the century, the ILP started a precipitous decline in strength (2015 being a one-off exception). Today, it is completely on the way out as a viable party, as reported in this newspaper back in April (https://www.timesofisrael.com/meanwhile-in-other-news-israels-labor-party-is-finished/). Given all the polls since then showing Labor with less support than necessary to pass the vote threshold (3.25%), it is almost certain that the two ILP ministers – Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli – will coalesce with Blue & White towards the next election, or risk an embarrassing electoral wipeout.

While this is sad news for the moderate Left – indeed, for Israel it’s an historic ending – it is also very bad news for Bibi and the Likud. To see why, we have to return to the heyday of ILP hegemony. Israel’s first years were extremely difficult, what with the War of Independence, immediately followed by a doubling of its population within four years due to massive Jewish immigration, and then several years of rationed semi-famine (the tzenah). Without laying blame (if anyone at all was to “blame”), the Jews that arrived from the Arab countries – Edot Ha’mizrakh, ethno-national groups from the East – lived through extremely difficult conditions for the ensuing decades. Their next generation erupted in protest in 1971, ultimately leading to the Likud’s electoral takeover in 1977. Since then, their sense of discrimination against ILP’s “Asheknazi hegemony” has been the foundation of the Likud’s hold on power. From Begin to Bibi (with ultra-Orthdodox, Edot Ha’mizrakh SHAS in key support since the mid-1980s), memories and continued feelings of ethnic discrimination have been a central force underlying the Likud’s victories.

With the disappearance of the ILP, that core factor will no longer be available. To paraphrase Richard Nixon’s famous line after his 1962 California Gubernatorial defeat: “the Likud won’t have Labor to kick around anymore”. The only vestige of Israel’s traditional Left that’s left is Meretz, but it has never been a threat to capture any real governing power. True, Bibi has tried to paint the Blue & White party as “smolanim” (Leftists), but that simply doesn’t stick given that its two leaders are former IDF Chiefs of Staff (and a third – Yaalon, ostensibly even more to the Right – left the party because his two compatriots joined the government with Bibi!).

In short, Bibi no longer has the ILP voodoo doll/piñata to stick pins into; anti-Left emotionalism will be enfeebled, perhaps even completely dissolved. Which leaves Bibi and the Likud to run “on the record” – and that domestic record has lately been catastrophic: the highest unemployment rate in Israel’s history; one of the world’s worst Corona rates; and rampant corruption in his party and among some right-wing coalition partners (others are under advanced investigation and pre-indictment).

This does not mean that the Likud will “lose” the next election. It does mean that the Likud will lose seats (the latest polls show a significant decline); that internal disaffection vis-à-vis Bibi will continue to fester and grow; and that we are probably witness to the beginning of Israel’s next tectonic shift in electoral politics. Perhaps not right away, but the writing is on the wall; after all, it took four years for the ILP’s disastrous handling in the 1973 Yom Kippur War to be translated into electoral defeat by the Likud in 1977 (ironically, with the anti-ILP campaign slogan “mush’khatim, nim’astem”: “we’re disgusted at your corruption”).

So along with – and in part because of – Israel’s R.I.P. for the Labor Party, the country is probably witnessing as well the death knell of longstanding Likud hegemony.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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