The demise of Israel’s Labor Party


With the breakdown in coalition negotiations last weekend between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, Israel faces another period of political uncertainty. But no matter how things play out, it is clear that Israel’s historic founding Labor Party will have no role in the next government, and perhaps not in Israel’s future.

In addition to the much reported jockeying among Israeli politicians for ministries, political power and prestige, there are developments that are happening in Israel’s political world that will have a lasting effect on the center and left. When Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White, announced he was entering negotiations with Netanyahu after promising that he would not, two of the party’s three factions broke away. That left Gantz with a fragmented house rather than a powerhouse.

The demise of center parties is nothing new. Since the 1970s, center parties have ballooned with popular support, only to deflate or break up an election or two later. History seems to be telling us that the “center” struggles to maintain its hold. But Israel’s Labor Party is not a “center” party. Rather, Israel’s founding party under David Ben-Gurion is something much different — best described as a Zionist-socialist party. There was a time when Labor was dominant in Israel. But that is no more. The once indispensable party is now virtually irrelevant.

Labor, which has gone under a series of names since 1948, never had a majority in the Knesset. In the 1949 elections it won 46 seats. But it was dominant enough for Ben-Gurion and his successors to form a Labor-led coalition. The situation reversed in 1977, when Menachem Begin, after 29 years of leading the opposition, formed a center-right government whose descendant is Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud. There have been Labor prime ministers since then, although none since 2000. Labor has fallen so far that when Labor Chairman Amir Peretz recently agreed to join the now-scrapped unity government, he was speaking for a party with only three Knesset members. And one of the three then rebelled, and broke away.

Many of us still view the early days of Israel with nostalgia, something most Israelis don’t share. But those of us over 60 remember Israel’s heroic age and her leaders — Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres — with fondness, awe and respect. Although their mistakes and shortcomings are known, each showed an almost single-minded dedication to the creation of a Jewish community, and later a state, in the Land of Israel. And the Labor Party was their means to get it done.

That time has ended. And even though the light of Israel’s Labor Party is now only flickering, we felt it important to pay our respects before the light goes out.

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