To understand what is happening to the Labor Party today one must understand what happened in January 2011. On January 17, 2011, Defense Minister and Labor Party Leader Ehud Barak announced that he was splitting the party and forming the new Independence Faction along with senior Labor members such as Matan Vilnai and Shalom Simhon. Barak would remain Defense Minister for the rest of Netanyahu’s second term. Labor initially broke down into complete chaos after the split left the party with just 8 seats. Labor eventually united behind Shelly Yacimovich, but the party almost divided into additional pieces.
Labor had dropped to an historic low of 13 seats in the 2009 election. Labor, the party that founded the country and produced seven Prime Ministers, had been regulated to middle-party status with their fourth place finish. Barak, who was Defense Minister in Olmert’s outgoing government, retained his position as he signed a coalition agreement on Labor’s behalf to join Netanyahu’s government. There was opposition in the party to this move and calls for a leadership race were immediate. Barak was able to delay the race with various excuses, the last of which was a commitment to hold the race after the vote on the Netanyahu government’s biannual 2011-2012 budget. With the biannual budget in the books the government was safe through 2013. It was now possible for Barak to split off with over a third of the Labor MKs and remain in the coalition. Interestingly, Barak built the Independence Party on the framework of the defunct Third Way Party, which had also previously split from Labor, and later joined Netanyahu’s first government in the 1990s.
Although the move was great for Barak personally, it was a major blow for the Labor Party. Amir Peretz, Eitan Cabel, and two other MKs conducted their own meetings and prepared to split off from the party. Shelly Yacimovich, Isaac Herzog, and two other MKs decided they would stay in the party no matter what. These two groups of four MKs clashed with each other for days in public and in private. It seemed that the two groups of four MKs were fighting more with each other than with the five MKs that had just split off. Walking the Knesset corridors at this time provided interesting interactions that a gentleman cannot share.
On January 23 former Minister Michael Harish was brought out of political retirement and named interim leader. Internal agreements were reached, and Peretz agreed not to split the party further after receiving an agreement to push off the primary until September and launch a membership drive that would allow new party members to vote in the upcoming leadership election. The membership drive was viewed as particularly important for Peretz because rumors had surfaced he had moved his supporters to the Kadima Party and needed time to bring them back to Labor to be eligible to vote for him in the primary.
A number of candidates considered running for party leadership. Seven candidates announced their candidacy, but only four remained on the ballot by the time the voting started. Yacimovich received 32%, and Peretz received 31% in the first round. Herzog, who had finished in third place, backed Yacimovich in the second round of voting, which helped lead Yacimovich to a 54%-45% victory over Peretz. Harish handed over the keys of the party to Yacimovich in late September 2011, and about 16 months later Labor would win 15 seats in the January 2013 general election.
Most Zionist Union MKs have not found a reason to publicly defend their boss and Leader of the Opposition Isaac Herzog, who is fighting for his political life. There is no political benefit in defending a senior figure under the shadow of a corruption probe at a time when a former Prime Minister and President are both sitting in Israeli jail cells. The pressure for Herzog to set a date for the next Labor Leadership Primary is growing, and a long list of potential candidates are preparing for the upcoming campaign season. Herzog, who was already facing intense pressure before the scandal hit, is adamant he is innocent and is trying even harder than before to delay the leadership race. Herzog’s struggle to push off the leadership race can be compared to Barak’s situation.
The chatter and attention the upcoming Labor Party Primary is receiving in the media and among the political insider circles is quite impressive given the fact this is a party that has failed to win an election in the 21st century. The long list of candidates that plan on seeking the Labor leadership is even more impressive if you note Lapid’s rise in the polls that has demoted Labor to third place. The long list also resembles the 2011 situation at this point in time.
A recent Panels Poll, conducted after Herzog’s probe was made public, found that only 15% of the Israeli public will consider voting for the Zionist Union ticket in the next election. The general public thinks the Zionist Union should focus on a social agenda (59%) more than security and diplomacy issues (35%). That finding is good for Yacimovich and bad for Herzog. More bad news for Herzog is that the top answer on the poll question of what the Zionist Union’s main problem is was leadership. Panels found that Herzog measured the worst out of the six leaders polled in terms of leader motivation. Only 31% think that Herzog is motivated by the national interest, while 47% believe Herzog is motivated by personal interest. Another Panels poll revealed that 29% of Zionist Union voters from the previous election are now considering not voting for the list again because of Herzog’s probe. Labor was facing similarly tough polling numbers leading up to January 2011.
The first five Labor Party leaders (Eshkol, Meir, Rabin, Peres and Barak) all became Prime Minister, and one can count seven if one includes the pre-merger years of Ben-Gurion and Sharet. Labor’s problem didn’t start with Herzog, nor did it start in January 2011. Labor has been fading since Ariel Sharon defeated Barak in the special Prime Minister election of 2001. The party has been plagued by splits, scandals, and leadership elections that occur about every two years on average.
The Zionist Union of today is a relatively inexperienced party on the political level. 17 of their 24 MKs are either in their first or second terms, including nine rookie MKs. That means just seven MKs with more than three or so years of political experience as an MK. Three of those seven are former Kadima MKs Tzipi Livni, Yoel Hasson and Nachman Shai, who are viewed more as politicians who made clever political maneuvers than members of Labor’s ideological base. The other four MKs are considered leaders of the most significant camps in the party. Additionally, they are the four surviving members of the eight Labor MKs of January 2011.
Amir Peretz is not just the most senior MK serving in the Labor Party; he is the most senior MK serving in the Knesset. He was elected for the first time in the same 1988 class that produced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Appropriations Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni, Defense & Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tzachi Hanegbi and MK Benny Begin. Peretz has had a complicated relationship with Labor. He split off from Labor in 1999 and created the One Nation Party. He merged his party back into Labor in 2004. Peretz, a former Histadrut trade union federation leader, defeated Shimon Peres in the 2005 Labor Party primary and led Labor to 19 seats in the 2006 general election. Peretz joined Olmert’s government as Defense Minister and served in that crucial post during the Second Lebanon War. Peretz remained in the party after losing the leadership in 2007. In 2011 Peretz ran again for party leadership after flirting with Kadima, considering splitting Labor, or creating a new party, and lost. He left Labor and joined Livni for the 2013 elections. After replacing Mitzna as Livni’s number 2, Peretz left Livni’s Party and rejoined the Labor Party this past September. He has been around long enough during his political career to have complicated relationships, as both an enemy and a friend to the remaining senior Labor leaders depending on the era in question. He is expected to run again.
Eitan Cabel was first elected to Knesset in 1996, the start of Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister. He has outlasted all of his Labor colleagues with the exception of Peretz. Cabel is the only one of the current veteran Labor MKs without a previous tenure in Kadima not to be elected Labor’s Leader. Cabel has flirted with the idea of running for party leadership in the past but has never pulled the trigger. It is possible that he will run this time, but it is also possible that he makes a deal to be the main supporter of a different candidate in return for something on the outside such as the Histadrut trade union federation leadership, a position he once ran for and lost.
Shelly Yacimovich, a former journalist, joined the party for the 2006 election. Peretz was leader at the time and responsible for bringing her in, and one could say that she was his most loyal supporter during that period. The relationship soured when Yacimovich backed Ehud Barak over Ami Ayalon in the second round of the June 2007 Labor Party Leadership Primary. Peretz was heavily invested in Ayalon’s campaign and he took Yacimovich’s support of Barak as a sign of betrayal. Yacimovich defeated her former mentor in the second round of the 2011 Leadership Election thanks to support from Herzog. Peretz attacked her publicly and joined Livni’s party ahead of the 2013 general election. Yacimovich led Labor to 15 seats in 2013, and she would lose to Herzog in the primary held later that year. It is almost certain she will run in the upcoming Labor Leadership Election.
Isaac Herzog, a member of the Herzog dynasty, was first elected to Knesset in 2003. His most significant post before entering the Knesset was Government Secretary in Ehud Barak’s cabinet from 1999-2001. Herzog served as a minister during his first three terms as part of the Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu governments. Although he finished third in the 2011 Labor Leadership Primary he was able to pick the winning horse in the second round in Yacimovich. He would later defeat her in the 2013 primary election and become party leader.
In the first week of December 2014, Labor was in third place with 13.4 seats according to the Knesset Jeremy Weekly Average #1 of 12 polls from 9 polling companies. If polling under the 15 seats Yacimovich had won just two years ago wasn’t bad enough, Labor was running closer to fourth place than to second. Three polls from that week had them down at 12 seats which would be under the previous low of Barak’s 13 seats from 2009. It looked like Herzog’s political career was nearing its end and that the Labor party might cement itself with a mid-level party status. Then, Herzog pulled a rabbit out of his hat. The agreement to run a joint ticket with Livni’s party brought his number up to 22.2 seats according to the Knesset Jeremy Weekly Average #2. The Zionist Union ticket would win 24 seats in the election and become the second largest Faction in the Knesset.
It has been over a year since the election, and the Zionist Union’s numbers have dropped. In most polls Labor is polling third, behind Yesh Atid. The joint ticket with Livni is no longer popular internally and the alliance’s continuation is in doubt. Behind-the-scenes, Herzog is perceived by many to be weak, both as leader of Labor and as leader of the opposition. A friend of mine in the opposition called the Zionist Union – “24 MKs that act as if they are in 24 different parties”. Many Labor MKs are silent in public, but some MKs are attacking Herzog directly and others are attacking him indirectly by praising him before expressing their nuanced opinions.
Many of the candidates realize that a membership drive can help them, so they are not looking to oust Herzog quite yet. Erel Margalit, the first candidate to start his campaign, produced a campaign video asking for new members to sign up to the party to support his candidacy. Margalit understands, based on the previous primary results, that he needs to create a new movement that will produce a fresh crop of primary voters unaffiliated with the “big four” if he wants to win. Peretz, who has recently rejoined Labor, is also sure to benefit from a long primary process that will allow him to go through his old lists of supporters and bring them back into the party. Peretz has run for the leadership position many times before and has always finished in double digits, important in a large crop of candidates that will almost definitely produce a second round of voting. Although candidates such as Yacimovich or Cabel might not favor a membership drive it is important for other outside candidates who remain undecided such as Ashkenazi, Huldai, Gantz or others.
Some view Herzog’s recent statements as a move to the right that would allow him to enter the Netanyahu Government as the leader of Labor or perhaps the leader of another split movement. In this scenario Herzog could return to a ministry office and stay there until 2019 if the 2017-2018 biannual budget is passed.
Another option is that Herzog is doing what he can to buy as much time as possible, by convincing the other leadership candidates that his lame-duck months as leader is in their best interest, hoping that time is what is needed to make his possible legal troubles go away. In this scenario Herzog either pulls out another rabbit from his hat like he did in December 2014 or he serves as a de-facto interim leader until he is replaced.
The best way to answer the question on the future of the Zionist Union Faction and the Labor Party is to revisit January 2011. However, the question remains if Herzog is Ehud Barak or Michael Harish.