Labor’s Vain Foray into Identity Politics

Avi Gabbay (Image credit: Nimrod Zuk)

In the Labor primaries, Avi Gabbay beat out Amir Peretz on July 10 to take the reins of the socialist party. The party and mainstream media have made much ado over the two Mizrahi candidates’ ethnic identities, indicating that instead of addressing its ideological disconnect from the general populace that has made it largely a political non-factor in recent years, the struggling party is instead desperately turning to identity politics as the panacea to cure its ills.

The primaries were a chance for the "Zionist Union" amalgam of Labor and Hatnua, which currently holds 24 seats, to try and turn around its dismal showing in the polls. In polls held after Gabbay took power, Labor has indeed seen a slight bump, with a Panels Politics poll conducted for Walla on July 12 giving the party 19 mandates. However, this increase in support from recent polls is still a significant drop from its current 24, and is likely thanks to the blaring media coverage of Gabbay’s victory. It is all the more evident that this spike in support is temporary when comparing it with a Panels Politics poll conducted for Maariv on July 7 before the primaries results and media onslaught – it found Labor dropping to a paltry 16 mandates under Gabbay or 17 under Peretz, coming in a far third after Likud and Yesh Atid.

Gabbay, a businessman who made millions as an executive at Bezeq telecommunications and now ironically leads a socialist party, acutely recognizes his party’s disconnect from the public, particularly from the Mizrahi public that tends to be more nationalistic, as is evident in his victory speech.

“Let us begin the journey to the hearts of good Israelis who love the state and are concerned about it. Israelis who believe in our ideological values; Israelis who for dozens of years have not been voting for Labor, and we are starting the journey to them,” Gabbay said after being elected party head.

His mention of ideological values is poignant – for it is precisely the ideological mismatch that leaves most Mizrahi voters opposing Labor, rather than just the matter of underrepresentation of Mizrahi Jews in the party leadership, which Labor appears to be focusing on.

Gabbay’s pitch to Mizrahi Jews was even more pronounced in statements he made after getting through the first round of the primaries with Peretz, which he did after joining Labor just last December after jumping ship a few months earlier in May from the Kulanu party he helped Moshe Kahlon found. He had been serving as minister of environmental protection in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s cabinet until then.

In his victory statements after the first round, Gabbay said: "You have proven that you are an open party that truly calls on new publics to join it. Choosing me is a call to new constituencies saying: 'We want you to join us.'" His term “new constituencies” was readily understood as an overt code word for Mizrahi Jews, and indeed Peretz used the term in promoting himself as well.

Pundits on the left have echoed the emphasis on Gabbay and Peretz’s status as Moroccan Jews heard from the Labor political elites.

An analysis in the radical leftist Haaretz declared: “The rise of the two Mizrahi candidates – both have Moroccan roots – and the ‘defeat of the Ashkenazim’ seems [sic] to be a reaction to the party’s sorry state in the country’s outskirts. Labor barely registers outside greater Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim. It has become a niche party. The choice of Peretz and Gabbay, by a wide margin above the other three, signals a desire by the Labor faithful to regain constituencies that have turned away from the party.”

But not all on the left were enthusiastic about the new appeal to identity politics as a strategic gambit.

“The ethnic issue is not the key to Labor becoming an alternative to the Likud, and it must not be allowed to become that,” read an article in the leftist news site Al-Monitor warning Labor to stop focusing on Gabbay and Peretz’s identity. “The party will be judged by the ability of the person who leads it to convince the public that he has a path of his own and can be trusted when it comes to security matters.”

This warning to Labor has a point – Mizrahi Jews are not going to vote for the party because a Moroccan Jew is leading it. Identity politics, a staple in the West though it has been largely failing the left as a political strategy, is likely doomed to failure because what ultimately convinces voters are values and policy.

And values and policy are where Labor has failed to learn the lesson. Gabbay will not be winning over “new constituencies” – not because he isn’t Mizrahi enough, but because he does not resonate with the vision of the country held by most Mizrahim.

In his victory speech, Gabbay highlighted this point by declaring: “The time has come for leadership that acts honestly and courageously for peace with our neighbors, not another peace of slogans. Not another government that deals in blame games with the Palestinians…I call on all citizens of Israel, regardless of whether you are members of the Labor party or not, to join me.”

This appeal to a Mizrahi voter base that has largely shown a nationalist stance at the polls is unlikely to succeed, particularly considering the details of what Gabbay’s “peace” would look like.

Outlining his vision of a “two-state solution” dividing Israel, Gabbay’s diplomatic plan states he is in favor of “land swaps and creating a demilitarized Palestinian state in the territories of the [West] Bank and Gaza.”

He also was asked in an interview with Ynet, held on July 11 after his victory, about his previous statements on “returning Arab villages” around Jerusalem and Arab-majority neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority.

“When I talk about handing over Arab villages, I am talking about the entire Arab village that is called Jerusalem, but it isn’t really Jerusalem,” he said in a call to divide the city, even while claiming to be in favor of “unified” Jerusalem.

Since being elected Gabbay has taken additional positions that fly in the face of the traditional values held by many Mizrahi Jews, including his calls in favor of "equal rights" for same-sex "families" and "giving part of the Western Wall" to Reform Jews.

These dyed-in-the-wool leftist positions ensure that under Gabbay’s leadership, regardless of its venture into identity politics, Labor will continue to remain ideologically irrelevant for most Mizrahi Jews – and indeed, for most Jews in Israel of all backgrounds.

This was proven by a new Rafi Smith Research Institute poll published July 10, which found that 72% of Jews in Israel disagree with the notion that “land for peace” can serve as the basis for ending the conflict.

Labor would be well advised to study the results of the poll and realize that the reason they are failing to take control of the government as they so often claim they will is because they have a vision of the country that is out of step with the overwhelming majority of Israelis.

But instead of grasping this point, Labor has made clear that its strategy is skin-deep: wooing Mizrahi voters by having a chairperson who looks like them.

Ironically, the nationalist religious Otzma Yehudit party, which is so frequently maligned by Labor and its ilk on the left with epithets of being "racist" over its calls to defend Jewish interests, is led by Dr. Michael Ben-Ari, the son of immigrants from Afghanistan and Iran. His ethnic identity is not considered something to make a big deal over by the party, because those who share the party’s outlook recognize that the identity that truly matters is that of being a Jew and not a hyphenated Jew, and they value ideas over dividing Jews based on where they lived in the Exile.

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...הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָרִימִי אַל תִּירָאִי אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה הִנֵּה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם! (ישעיה  מ:ט)

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(Isaiah 40:9)

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