As I noted yesterday, there’s some dispute over whether Labor should be called a winner of the Israeli election in any sense of the word or whether it’s a clear loser. The answer should probably be some combination: it did better than it had in the previous election (even if only by a couple seats), while at the beginning of the campaign it was polling into the low 20s but ended up with only 15 seats.
The more important underlying question, then, is why did it only get 15 seats—third place—when it was widely expected to be in second place with at least 17-18 mandates. It’s true there are some concerns over the methodology and practice of public opinion polling in Israel, but it’s also true that surveys were often within their margins of error on most of the parties. Let’s look, rather, at the campaign itself.
I’ll start off by repeating that Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich made a clear choice not to talk about the occupation or foreign affairs, and I think it was a solid decision. All indications were that Israelis simply didn’t want to talk about these things either, but they were highly interested in domestic issues, especially socio-economic ones.
Factors beyond Labor’s control
First, the appearance of Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid clearly undermined Yachimovich’s claim to represent the only new face in the campaign. Lapid was obviously the “freshest,” especially with continuous comments about his appearance, but his was a totally brand new party. As dynamic as Yachimovich tried to seem, Labor still represented something old.
Labor, Livni, and Yesh Atid fought for the same electorate of centrist, undecided voters. Such a crowded field certainly meant a division of votes, since there was so much choice. At the same time, Labor was competing with Meretz, as usual, for those further on the Zionist left. That Meretz explicitly talked about the occupation but Labor didn’t was bound to lead to some shift in votes.
Second, Labor was operating among an electorate that was still very much interested in the right. There are some claims that Israel isn’t the right-leaning country everybody feared it was. Israel was never about to descend into a long winter of theocracy, authoritarianism, and violent militarism. Still, while it’s true the right and religious parties didn’t do as well as widely expected, demographic and public opinion trends indicate there really is a slow right-religious shift among the Jewish population. Moreover, the right and religious parties still did well (Jewish Home) or held their own (Shas, UTJ). Likud-Beiteinu is the only list that dropped, but many of their voters went to Yesh Atid—a center-right party.
Factors in Labor’s control
First, as I said, Yachimovich—against the advice of some within the party—made a conscious decision not to talk about the Palestinians, the settlements, or the occupation. This was fine as far as it went, but it was inevitable that the issues would come up during the campaign, forcing her to give some response. When she did, though, it came across as too forced, and made it seem as though she was ducking the issue as much as possible.
Again, this isn’t a big deal as far as it goes given what Israelis were saying they wanted to talk about—and Lapid himself said pretty much the same things she did—but for some it came across as deceptive. Labor was seemingly held to a higher standard because it’s the traditional party of doves, and is expected to focus on the peace process. That it wasn’t a major party issue was seen as a betrayal—even Haaretz and +972 writers were arguing that Livni was the better choice because at least she was talking about this most important of issues.
Second, Yachimovich seemed to close the door on joining a Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition. It was clear to everybody that Bibi would become prime minister again. Closing off options before the results were even in seemed petulant to some, bad strategy to others, and inexperience to many.
Third, Yachimovich didn’t have enough security officials on her list. Labor has been a traditional home for military officers once they left the army, and the gap at the top of the list was glaring. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was there, but he’s an older, more tired version of the crop of young recruits that have long seemed to populate Labor at every election. Instead, her list was filled with dynamic, creative individuals who worked in a range of other areas. This was, again, good for the focus on domestic issues but not on security affairs.
That Lapid’s list was similar to Yachimovich’s, in that his top security official held the number 5 slot (Yaakov Peri) but the rest of his list had a variety of non-security candidates, didn’t mean anything since Lapid was not expected to campaign to foreign affairs. He could get away with things she couldn’t.
Fourth, Yachimovich angered some within the party by bringing in lots of new people, but also changing some of the voting procedures of the primary process. This led to some perceptions of infighting, which may not have played well.
Labor has been struggling for many years to rebuild itself into the party that founded the state and posed a serious alternative to Likud in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the lessons to be learned from this campaign may not be relevant for the next one, but clearly Labor still has a long way to go.