Surprisingly, amidst the obsessive attention in the world press to Israel’s pre-election polls, there’s been little discussion about whether historically these polls have predicted the election results. During the 1980s and 90s there were six elections, and in most of them Labour did more poorly in the actual election than the pre-election polls suggested.
Even people who were dissatisfied with the Likud for one reason or another found that when they got into the voting booth they just couldn’t bring themselves to select the party of the secular, Ashkenazic elite. There was too great a legacy of resentment against Labour, the successor to Mapai, the party that put new Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East in tent cities and treated them with condescension, if not outright scorn. Thirty years after the Great Immigration of the 1950s, Labour was still associated with cutting off the forelocks of Yemenite immigrant males or belittling Moroccan immigrants for their hearty gutturals.
Since the 90s, Labour has suffered for another reason – its association with the now-deceased Oslo peace process. Labour has been considered soft, “defeatist,” a party of “freyerim” (suckers). Unable to gain much ground on the Palestinian issue, in the last election in 2013 Labour focused on Israel’s growing economic inequity and weakening social safety net. It helped a bit, but not enough to revive the party, which got only about eleven per cent of the vote.
If as the polls are predicting the Zionist Union (Labour plus Tzippi Livni’s Ha-Tenuah party) wins several seats more than the Likud, it will be a sign that Labour has finally overcome a dual curse of bygone hegemony and failed peacemaking. But even if the Zionist Union wins a plurality of the vote, a centre-left coalition will be difficult to form and no less difficult to maintain. Much of Israel’s Jewish electorate is still more hawkish than Labour’s current incarnation. If nothing else, though, in this election Labour may get rid of some old ghosts and reclaim a place for itself in Israeli politics, a place that it has all but lost over the fourteen years since its last government under Ehud Barak.