Israeli Labor needs to say what it stands for – not against

Israeli Labor needs to say what it stands for – not against

If the party is to have any relevance, it must articulate its raison d’etre, starting with a Labor critique of the judicial overhaul for the workers it is supposed to represent.

The argument most widely heard among anti-overhaul protesters is that Israel is abandoning its democratic roots.

Given the Labor Party’s paramount role in Israel’s democratic foundation, it could be expected to be a natural leader in this movement – taking centre stage to re-assert itself, and all that it represents, at a time when its decades of leadership is looking, to liberals, like a golden age when compared to the present.

In May, Labor Leader Merav Michaeli was booed off stage at an anti-overhaul protest after speaking for less than two minutes. In almost every public opinion poll conducted since the judicial crisis begun, Labor is sinking into the depths of oblivion. It is no longer a matter of “crossing the electoral threshold” and keeping the four seats it has. Today, the party is lucky to score even 2.0%.

In March 2021, Michaeli led the Labor Party to an unexpected win of seven-seats – outpacing expectations and appearing to confirm a growing buzz around her as the next great saviour of the Israeli left. Two years, and one major strategic error later, her reputation on the left could not be more different. Michaeli’s decision not to merge with Meretz in the previous election has embedded a deep and intense acrimony towards her – the aborted merger saw the opposition bloc lose four vital seats.

Labor is not as central as we might expect in the anti-overhaul movement because it in a state of internal crisis.

Michaeli protests that she did not make the decision alone, that “the whole party was opposed to joining with Meretz.” She maintains optimism about Labor’s prospects,  comparing Israel’s surge of progressive energy to the backlash against Donald Trump after November 2016.  She maintains that the anti-overhaul movement and the high stakes with which it is dealing present “a huge opportunity” for Labor and the progressive Left.

Nevertheless, Labor is the sick man (or woman) of the Knesset. In the words of an anonymous Labor source speaking to the Times of Israel in June: “It is very hard to come back from such a loss of public faith … The problem is that every day our situation worsens.”

Michaeli’s Knesset team was even more blunt about the party’s prospects. In a statement to the party membership, it writes: “We can no longer stand by. Stagnation in institutions, crash in municipalities. Paralysed branch councils. We care about the Labor Party and it pains us to see it in danger of extinction.”

Labor is not as central as we might expect in the anti-overhaul movement because it in a state of internal crisis.

Underlying cracks became public fissures in April 2023, when Labor MK Efrat Rayten announced her intention to challenge Michaeli in the party primaries. The entire Labor Knesset team then publicly demanded a seizure of party functions from the leader – asserting that Michaeli would no longer be able to independently decide how to use party-owned assets, budgets, electoral lists, or determine the role of Labor in the protest movement.

In May, MK Gilad Kariv posted on Facebook affirming the need for a major change in direction. On June 19, grassroots Labor activists began publicly calling for Michaeli’s resignation and an early election for the party leadership. They have protested an opaque decision to sell the party’s headquarters in Haifa, effectively eliminating the last of the party’s organisational infrastructure from this major city.

Although Israel’s Channel 12 has recently reported that 41% of Labor voters would prefer Michaeli stay, as opposed to 39% believing she should resign, the chorus of condemnation has not slowed.

In an impassioned social media post circulated among Labor supporter pages and groups, one member has denounced the party leadership for perceived hypocrisy: circumventing Labor’s democratic procedures while attacking the far-right government for doing the same to the nation at large.

Other Labor members have publicly announced their intention to boycott party meetings or refuse to run for internal positions such as the Labor Youth Council. Michaeli’s seeming deviation from Labor’s long tradition of internal democracy has been seen as a betrayal of party values.

As tempting as it may be for Labor supporters and critics alike to pin the party’s bleak position on its leader, Labor has been treading water for years. Since 2001, the party’s showing in Knesset elections has been on a downward spiral.

Michaeli is one of many Israeli Labor leaders who have taken the gamble of emphasising progressive liberal values over the party’s traditional basis in economic justice.

Liberal secularism has always been central to Labor, but it is but one of the two wheels in the party’s political bicycle. Without the supporting momentum of class politics, Labor appears to have lost both itself and its supporters.

As important as the refusal to merge with Meretz was, this dilemma is perhaps key to understanding the party’s long-running political malaise.

Michaeli leads a Knesset team of lawyers, journalists, media personalities and postgraduates. It is difficult to see much labour in the Labor Party.

Israeli political commentator Eitan Cable has presciently observed that just as Likud has abandoned its roots in Jabotinsky’s liberalism, Labor has cut its ties with Ben-Gurion’s democratic socialism. The outcome has been a political terrain where voters have to strain to see what makes Labor distinct, even necessary, compared to its competitors on the liberal centre.

Michaeli leads a Knesset team of lawyers, journalists, media personalities and postgraduates. It is difficult to see much labour in the Labor Party.

In May, Michaeli attacked a government proposal to redistribute local tax revenues from wealthy municipalities to poorer ones, joining the centrist Yesh Atid in calling this proposal “theft”. The party missed an opportunity to affirm its distinctiveness from the middle-class centre and rebuild trust with its disgruntled base.

In a country more polarised than ever on sectarian lines, re-aligning public debate on economic terms is extremely challenging. It is not difficult to understand why recent generations of Labor leaders have pursued alternative strategies.

Nevertheless, if the labour movement has had one role historically, it was to function as a hinge connecting working-class people to liberal government. This cultivates an investment in the democratic process and an appreciation for maintaining institutional norms.

The hinge is broken. As Labor’s support base grew more affluent, many disadvantaged Israelis disassociated themselves from the democratic process. This has left opposition to the overhaul to be spearheaded by high-tech workers, doctors, academics, the military, the professional class, and other important social groups which do not make close to a majority of the Israeli public.

Labor is the only party in the progressive opposition with a record of speaking beyond these constituencies. If it still has anything left to offer, it is this.

A uniquely Labor response to the judicial crisis would anaylse its potential effects on Israel’s wage earners. Democratic decay, economic inequality, and deteriorating workers’ rights often come hand in hand.

In Australia, we have seen how a lack of institutional oversight in the Robodebt scandal led to profound attacks on the disadvantaged. High-minded values are important – but Labor’s survival can only be secured by tying the judicial crisis to the immediate, tangible concerns of its (former) social base. 

Labor supporters, Knesset members and trade unionists have participated enthusiastically in the movement against the judicial seizure of power, but if Labor is to express itself once again as a distinct political entity, it will need to articulate its raison d’etre: it will need to rise to its historic role as the vehicle through which working people become invested in democratic life.

This means articulating a specifically Labor critique of the implications of the judicial overhaul for the Israeli working class. Short of this, no change in leader will be enough to reverse the party’s decline – nor the continued collapse of Israel’s democratic life.

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Photo: Labor leader Merav Michaeli