Welcome to Kafe Knesset: Your daily guide on everything driving the conversation in Israeli politics. I’m Neri Zilber and I look forward to briefing you from now through the upcoming election and beyond. Subscribe to Kafe Knesset here, follow me @NeriZilber and reply to this newsletter with all tips and feedback. Thanks!
Labor Pains: The Labor party is holding its primaries today to choose its electoral list ahead of April’s general election. The party of Ben-Gurion and Eshkol, Peres and Rabin — the party that built the State of Israel — is arguably at its lowest ever point.
Recent polls have it garnering between five to seven seats, with speculation rampant about whether it will even pass the (four seat) electoral threshold. Party officials hope that positive media attention on the slate picked by the party’s sixty-thousand members will change its fortunes. Yet even under the best-case scenario only a fraction of those chosen by the membership will have a realistic shot at making it to the Knesset. A key metric of remaining support will therefore be voter turnout.
How did the venerable Labor party, which in the last election (running in union with the Hatnuah party) came in second with 24 seats, reach this nadir? Benny Gantz’s entry into the race has siphoned off many potential left/center voters who just want a real alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu. There have also been numerous internal squabbles and missteps, none bigger than Labor chairman Avi Gabai dismantling the merger with Hatnuah, crassly firing former foreign minister Tzipi Livni on live television.
On a recent Saturday night in the city of Ramat Gan, Gabai couldn’t get 200 people to come hear him speak at a local theater — this in a city Labor won in 2015 with 26,000 votes. Gabai tried to put a brave face on his poll numbers to the (mostly) older crowd in attendance. The party faithful seemed more interested in arguing about socialist orthodoxy and the merits of a merger with the left-wing Meretz party, a move Gabai has rejected. “You haven’t said the name ‘Rabin’ here,” a Labor old-timer yelled at Gabai, which wasn’t true. “This is the sickness of the Labor party,” whispered one activist to Kafe Knesset. It seems a party living in the past, too preoccupied with itself to adapt to the future.
Matchmaker Matchmaker Make Me a Match: Labor and Meretz aren’t the only parties who, despite low poll numbers, are still refusing to run together. A slew of far-right parties (Jewish Home, National Union, Otzma Le’Israel) are all currently well below the electoral threshold (3.25 percent of the total vote, equaling four seats). Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party, yesterday ruled out a union with his Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox counterparts in United Torah Judaism. A smattering of left-wing and centrist parties, foremost Orly Levi-Abuksis’ Gesher and Livni’s Hatnuah, are also in danger. The Joint (Arab) List has split too, with MK Ahmed Tibi and his Ta’al party holding out for better terms before any reunification. The February 20 deadline for registering parties is fast approaching — and with it decision time.
Jerusalem Attack Ruled Terrorism: After a thorough investigation, the Shin Bet ruled yesterday that the brutal slaying of 19 year old Ori Ansbacher in a Jerusalem forest last week was indeed a terrorist attack. The perpetrator, a Palestinian man from the West Bank, was “nationalistically motivated.” The ruling could have political implications in the middle of an election campaign.