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Labor Party: History & Overview

Period of Dominance
Comeback
Oslo
Back to the Opposition
Rivalry and Turmoil
Positions

The Labor Party (Hebrew, Mifleget ha-Avodah ha-Yisraelit) was established in 1968 through the joining of Mapai, Ahdut Ha’avodah and Labor Rafi. Mapai evolved from the socialist Poale Zion movement and adhered to the Socialist Zionist ideology promulgated by Nahum Syrkin and Ber Borochov. The dominant political figure in the party was David Ben-Gurion (1930–1954) who emphasized the Zionist agenda of establishing a homeland for the Jewish people.

After the founding of the state of Israel, Mapai engaged in nation building – the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces, the establishment of many communities in undeveloped areas, the settling of more than one million Jewish immigrants and the desire to unite all the inhabitants of Israel under a new Zionist Jewish Israeli culture (an ideology known as the “Melting pot” כור היתוך).

Labor is the dominant left-of-center party in Israel. Leaders of Israel’s Labor Party and its chief policy architects have included some of the country’s most recognizable names, including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak.

Until Menachem Begin’s victory in 1977, every Israeli prime minister came from Labor. Since 1977, Labor leaders Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak have served as prime ministers. The party is currently led by Avi Gabbay.

Period of Dominance

The foundations for the formation of the Israeli Labor Party were laid shortly before the 1965 Knesset elections when Mapai, the largest left-wing party in the country and the dominant partner in every government since independence, formed an alliance with Ahdut HaAvoda. Mapai’s Arab satellite lists followed the merger. The alliance was an attempt by Mapai to shore up the party’s share of the vote following a break-away of eight MKs (around a fifth of Mapai’s Knesset faction) led by Ben-Gurion to form the Rafi party to protest Mapai’s failure to approve a change to the country’s proportional representation voting system.

The alliance, called the Labor Alignment won 45 seats in the elections, and was able to form a government in coalition with the National Religious Party, Mapam, the Independent Liberals, Poalei Agudat Yisrael, Progress and Development and Cooperation and Brotherhood. After the start of the Six-Day War, Rafi and Gahal joined the coalition.

On January 21, 1968, Mapai, Ahdut HaAvoda and Rafi (with the exception of Ben-Gurion, who formed the National List in protest) merged into one body, creating the Israeli Labor Party. A year later, the party allied itself with Mapam to create the Alignment.

As the largest faction within the Alignment, Labor came to dominate it. Mapam left during the eighth Knesset, but rejoined shortly afterward.

During the 1970s, the welfare state was expanded under successive Labor governments, with increases in pension benefits and the creation of new social security schemes such as disability insurance and unemployment insurance in 1970, children’s insurance in 1975, vacation pay for adopting parents in 1976, a Family Allowance for Veterans in 1970, a benefit for Prisoners of Zion in 1973, and a mobility benefit and a Volunteers’ Rights benefit in 1975. During 1975–76, a modest program of housing rehabilitation was launched in a dozen or so older neighborhoods, while the Sick Leave Compensation Law of 1976 provided for compensation in cases when employees were absent from work because of illness.

The beginning of the end of Labor’s dominance began before the October 1973 War. The Labor Party was hampered by internal dissension, persistent allegations of corruption, ambiguities and contradictions in its political platform, and by the disaffection of Mizrachi Jews (those who came from Arab and Muslim countries). Labor’s failure to prepare the country for the war further alienated a large segment of the electorate.

Many Israelis blamed Golda Meir for what some saw as a defeat or, at a minimum, an embarrassment. She subsequently resigned and was replaced by Yitzhak Rabin. The postwar estrangement from the Israeli public intensified throughout 1976 as the party was hit with a barrage of corruption charges that struck at the highest echelons. Rabin’s minister of housing, who was under investigation for alleged abuses during his time as director general of the Histadrut Housing Authority, committed suicide in January 1977. At the same time, the governor of the Bank of Israel, who had been nominated by Rabin, was sentenced to jail for taking bribes and evading taxes, and the director general of the Ministry of Housing was apprehended in various extortion schemes. Rabin was also caught lying about money illegally kept in a bank account in the United States during the time he was ambassador.

The combination of events before, during, and after the 1973 War created an opportunity for the Likud under the fiery Menachem Begin to assume power. In the 1977 election, the Likud won 43 seats, the Alignment 32, and Begin was able to form a coalition government that left Labor in the opposition for the first time.

Comeback

Opposition to the right-wing policies adopted by the Likud and, especially, disaffection for the war in Lebanon launched by Begin allowed Labor to make a comeback in the 1984 elections. The Alignment won 44 seats to Likud’s 41. In part due to difficulty forming a coalition and in part due to the need to show solidarity as a nation during the ongoing fighting in Lebanon, the party leaders, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, agreed to serve as prime minister on a rotating basis.

Mapam broke away again during the eleventh Knesset, angry at Shimon Peres’s decision to form a national unity government with Likud. Although the Independent Liberals merged into the Alignment in the 1980s, they had no Knesset representation at the time.

On October 7, 1991, the Alignment ceased to exist as all factions merged into the Labor Party. At this time, the Shamir government faced escalating economic problems, the challenge of assimilating a large influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and serious tensions with the American government over settlement policy.

Led by Yitzhak Rabin, Labor won the 1992 elections and formed a government together with Meretz and Shas. In domestic policy, the Labor-led government introduced various measures to protect single parents and people with disabilities, while income support entitlements were liberalized. The 1994 Law to Reduce Poverty and Income Inequality (which was extended a year later) increased income maintenance grants to needy families, particularly benefitting those sections of society most vulnerable to poverty. In 1995, a national health insurance policy was implemented, making access to health care a right for all Israelis.

Various measures were also introduced to bring greater progressivity into the system for collecting national insurance contributions. A maternity grant for adopting mothers was introduced, together with old-age insurance for housewives, a minimum unemployment allowance, and a partial injury allowance. In addition, investments were made in numerous development projects while affirmative action programs were launched to hire Arab citizens in the public sector. The Ministry of Interior also increased the budgets for Arab local councils, and the Ministry of Education increased the budget for Arab education.

Oslo

In the past, Labor was more hawkish on security and defense issues than it is today. During its years in office, Israel fought the 1956 Sinai War, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Labor agreed to UN Resolution 242 and the notion of trading land for peace. Nevertheless, successive Labor governments established settlements in the disputed territories and refrained from dismantling illegal settlements, such as those established in 1968 at Qiryat Arba in Hebron by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, and others set up by Gush Emunim. By 1976, more than thirty settlements had been established on the West Bank; however, their population was fewer than 10,000.

In 1993, following secret negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in Oslo, Rabin and Yasser Arafat exchanged letters in which Rabin recognized the PLO and Arafat recognized Israel. The two leaders subsequently signed the Oslo Accords.

As Palestinian violence escalated during the years following the signing of the Accords, many Israelis grew increasingly angry, believing that Rabin should never have made concessions to someone considered a terrorist by most Israelis. In 1995, one fanatic Jew, Yigal Amir, assassinated Rabin.

He was succeeded by Peres who decided to call early elections in 1996 to give him a mandate for advancing the peace process. The strategy backfired, however, as a wave of suicide bombings by Hamas flared right before the election, which played into Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign promising to reign in the terrorists and stop making concessions to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu formed a government but it began to collapse in 1999, prompting him to call early elections. This time it was the Labor candidate, Ehud Barak, who prevailed leading the One Israel coalition that included Meimad and Gesher called One Israel. Since One Israel won the Knesset elections with only 26 seats, Barak had to form a diverse coalition that ultimately included 75 people from Shas, Meretz, Yisrael BaAliyah, the National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism. The coalition with religious parties (NRP, Shas and UTJ) caused tensions with the secularist Meretz, who quit the coalition after a disagreement with Shas over the authority of the Deputy Education Minister. The rest of the parties left before the Camp David 2000 summit.

Eschewing the incremental approach to peacemaking that had been unsuccessful for decades, Barak decided to try to reach an agreement with the Palestinians in one negotiation. Facilitated by President Bill Clinton, Barak ultimately offered Arafat a Palestinian state in approximately 97 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza. Arafat rejected the offer; nevertheless, many Israelis on the right were angered by Barak’s willingness to offer the Palestinians a say over parts of Jerusalem.

Back to the Opposition

The backlash against Barak helped propel Likud’s Ariel Sharon to victory in the special election called in 2001 after Barak resigned in the wake of the al-Aqsa Intifada. Labor remained in the coalition formed by Sharon as part of a new national unity government. Peres was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was made Defense Minister.

Labor supported Operation Defensive Shield, but came under increasing criticism for being “puppets” of Sharon and not promoting the peace process. Labor quit the government in 2003.

In the 2003 elections, Amram Mitzna led the party to a staggering defeat, winning only 19 seats – its lowest total ever. Mitzna resigned from the party leadership and was replaced by Peres. After the National Union and the National Religious Party left Sharon’s coalition to protest his disengagement plan for Gaza, the prime minister invited Labor to join the government to support his plan.

Peres was replaced shortly after Israel completed the evacuation from Gaza. His successor, Histadrut leader Amir Peretz promised to return the party to its socialist roots and pulled out of the government.

Sharon resigned and called for new elections in March 2006. Prior to the election, the political map was shaken up when Sharon and the majority of Likud’s MKs, together with a number of Labor MKs, including Peres, and some members of other parties, formed the Kadima Party. In the elections, Labor won 19 seats, making it the second largest party after Kadima. It joined Ehud Olmert’s Kadima-led government, with Peretz appointed Defense Minister. Labor’s main coalition demand and campaign promise was raising the minimum wage.

Peretz lost a challenge to his leadership in 2007 and was replaced by Barak, who was appointed Defense Minister.

Prior to the 2009 elections Labor and Meimad ended their alliance, with Meimad ultimately running a joint list with the Green Movement (which did not pass the electoral threshold). Several prominent members left the party, including Ami Ayalon, and Efraim Sneh (who formed Yisrael Hazaka). In the elections, Labor was reduced to just 13 seats, making it the fourth largest party behind Kadima, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu.

Analyzing the downfall of the once dominant political party in Israel, Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies highlighted several factors, including:

  • Disassociation with the settlement of the land.
  • Showing a willingness to divide Jerusalem.
  • Distancing itself from the collectivist ethos in Israel.
  • Being associated with the failure of the Oslo Accords.
  • Losing the support of the Sefardi population and failing to win over new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were backing rival parties.
  • Attempting to gain support of Arab voters, which alienated some Jewish voters and resulted in minimal backing from the Arabs.

Barak lost support within the party because of his support for Olmert’s policies and, in January 2011, resigned from Labor to start a new “centrist, Zionist and democratic” party, Independence. The remaining Labor Party government ministers subsequently resigned.

Barak was succeeded by Shelly Yachimovich, but she did little to win back the support Labor had lost. In the 2013 election, Labor won only15 seats.

Following that debacle, Labor chose Isaac Herzog to be its new leader. He agreed to form an alliance for the 2015 election with Tzipi Livni, leader and founder of the Hatnuah Party. The joint list Zionist Union received 24 seats in the Knesset, of which 19 belong to the Labor Party.

Rivalry and Turmoil

As the April 9, 2019, election approached, polls indicated Labor could win as few as five seats. “Labor has seen its fortunes tumble in recent years, hit by a rightward shift among Israeli voters, turmoil in the party, and the emergence of new political players that have eroded its base,” according to Raoul Wootliff. “But it still won 24 seats (in an alliance with the small Hatnuah faction) in the 2015 elections, compared to the winning Likud’s 30 seats. Its support has collapsed since then, surveys show, under the leadership of current chairman Avi Gabbay.”

The partnership continued after Avi Gabbay was elected chairman of the party on July 10, 2017, until January 1, 2019, when Gabbay unilaterally, and shockingly, announced the dissolution of the union while sitting beside Livni on live TV. The way she was unceremoniously dumped without advance warning may have alienated voters.

Polls forecast Livni’s Hatnuah failing to gain the 3.25 percent of votes necessary to enter the Knesset. Livni subsequently announced she was quitting politics and that her party would not run in the election.

In addition to facing the Likud juggernaut that has kept Netanyahu in power since 2009, Labor also faces threats from several new parties, most notably the Israel Resilience Party, which is expected to attract many voters who normally would vote for Labor because of the similarity of their agendas.

Shmuel Rosner also believes Gabbay is a problem. “He was a nobody from Israel’s center-right just a few months ago, a onetime minor minister under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was best known, if at all, for having quit the government in a huff.”

Some speculate that Gabbay may be willing to join a government coalition with the Israel Resilience Party if it will deny Netanyahu the premiership.

Positions

The Labor Party is committed to the maintenance of a democratic form of government; to the enhancement of the social and economic well-being of all of Israel’s citizens; to the strengthening of Israel’s economy based on free market principles; and, to the achievement of a comprehensive peace with security in the Middle East. Its ideological vision for Israel is based upon the values of the Jewish labor movement, which are in turn, products of the social experience and cultural heritage of the Jewish people. The party is also pragmatic, recognizing the necessity to compromise in both the domestic arena and in foreign affairs to promote political stability and the advancement of Israel’s fundamental interests. The 2019 party platform was outline by Gabbay on the party website.

The party is a member of the Progressive Alliance and an observer member of the Party of European Socialists. The party was also a member of the Socialist International until suspending its membership in 2018 over the Socialist International’s decision to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Similarly, Labor cut ties with the leader of its British counterpart, Jeremy Corbyn, over anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements he has made and his failure to adequately address anti-Semitism within the party in the U.K.


Sources: Labor Party;
Library of Congress;
“Israeli Labor Party,” Wikipedia;
Jonathan Lis, Likud Youth Chair Files Complaint Against Zionist Camp, Meretz, Haaretz (February 5, 2015);
Dan Ephron, Has Bibi Lost His Magic? Politico, (March 15, 2015);
Chaim Levinson, Avi Gabbay Wins Israel's Labor Party Primary, Beating Amir Peretz, Haaretz, (July 10, 2017);
David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner, “Pumping New Life into Israel’s Labor Party, From the Right,” New York Times, (December 1, 2017);
Jessica Elgot, “Antisemitism: Israeli Labor leader cuts ties with Jeremy Corbyn,” The Guardian, (April 10, 2018);
Shmuel Rosner, “The Inevitable, Necessary Death of Israel’s Labor Party,” New York Times, (January 10, 2019);
Raoul Wootliff, “Labor, bound for collapse in national elections, holds primaries,” Times of Israel, (February 11, 2019);
Gil Hoffman, “Tearful Tzipi Livni Quits Politics,” Jerusalem Post, (February 19, 2019).