The enthusiastic response to the fact that the two candidates who will take part in the second round of Labor Party primaries on July 10 are from Mizrahi origins does an injustice to Knesset members Amir Peretz and Avi Gabbay. It ensures that the old debate over ethnic issues remains within the boundaries of an outdated political discourse and diminishes the candidates' achievements.
It is no coincidence that Shas Party Chairman Aryeh Deri was quick to jump on the Mizrahi bandwagon. He responded to the two candidates' victory with this festive tweet: "Forget about politics and political blocs. The very fact that the Labor Party, the party that continues the legacy of [the predominantly Ashkenazi] Mapai party, elected Peretz and Gabbay tells us that we’ve made significant headway on the Mizrahi issue."
Deri heads an ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi party. He was the foremost campaigner to bring ethnic discrimination to the forefront of the political discourse. He did it for the past three decades, and he continues to do it today. Without that festering sense of victimhood, Shas would lose the very reason for its existence. When Deri congratulates the Ashkenazi Labor Party, he is bringing the ethnic demon to the forefront again and perpetuating it.
Deri should have been more precise. Gabbay and Peretz were not the first Mizrahim chosen to lead the Labor Party. Late Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer, who was born in Iraq, did it in the early 2000s. Peretz, who was born in Morocco, already once headed the party after defeating Shimon Peres, one of the most powerful icons of the Ashkenazi Mapai establishment, in 2005.
So what actually happened now? Gabbay and Peretz were able to defeat the Ashkenazi candidates — two (ousted Labor Party head Isaac Herzog and Knesset member Omer Bar-Lev) of whom were Mapai "princes" — and the reason they won was not their Mizrahi origins. Peretz won because he is planted deeply within the party establishment. He has political, diplomatic and security experience as a former defense minister (2006-2007). As for Gabbay, he was the "hot new item," the freshest product on the shelf. At 50, he is a relatively young candidate who has already succeeded financially. During their campaigns, both men claimed that they knew how to attract new communities of voters from the periphery — or in other words, Mizrahi Likud voters. But at the same time, that was not their ticket to the second round of primaries. The candidates they faced were simply less impressive and less able to win mass support. As for Herzog, the current party chairman who was deposed, he paid the price for his feeble performance as chairman of the opposition.
Neither Peretz nor Gabbay have any need to wave about their Mizrahi identity. It is evident in their very names, which were never changed to Hebrew in their bios, and even in the culture that they bring with them. Gabbay didn't need to be photographed with his Moroccan mother singing in the polling station during the primaries in an attempt to send an unspoken message to "new communities of voters." He should not be branded as a "the fresh and young Mizrahi" against Peretz, something he himself hints at privately according to political sources.
Gabbay deserves to be assessed on the basis of his talents and skills. Voters should ask whether he is capable of leading the State of Israel and making decisions concerning matters that he was never anywhere near handling. In contrast, Peretz is far more experienced, but he already ran for the office of prime minister and failed.
Now more than ever, with two Mizrahi candidates competing for the leadership of the most Ashkenazi party in Israel's history, any excessive focus or promotion of their ethnic origins — whether by them or by the people surrounding them, whether overtly or covertly — will only end up harming them. It might diminish their abilities to attract Likud supporters, and it belittles them when, in fact, they have many more abilities than that.
Apart from ultra-Orthodox Shas supporters, Mizrahim do not constitute a homogeneous community driven by a herd mentality. Anyone who treats their votes like that will only end up distancing them.
From a symbolic perspective, the election of Peretz and Gabbay is a very interesting development. The 2017 model of the Labor Party is the current incarnation of the historically Ashkenazi Mapai party. The ethnic vote was an open secret in the Labor Party, particularly in its strongholds in the kibbutzim and in cities along the central coast where there is an Ashkenazi majority. Peretz himself is proof of this. When he was elected head of the Labor Party in 2005, he lost several seats, which in language less than politically correct could be described as "white/Ashkenazi voters." These voters were replaced by new "Mizrahi" supporters from the development towns. At the time, Peretz had the good sense not to talk about that explicitly. The same is true of former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, a member of Israel's Persian community. He also got caught in the ethnic obstacle when he headed Kadima (2012-2013), a party that had a hardcore Mapai base. This "white tribe" had a hard time voting for him despite his talents and skills.
Ever since the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, the Labor Party has been unable to find an identity. It has changed leaders, forged new alliances and appointed inexperienced candidates as its leaders, like they did in 2013 when they elected Shelly Yachimovich to head the party. Time after time, Labor suffered disappointment and defeat at the ballot box.
The ethnic issue is not the key to Labor becoming an alternative to the Likud, and it must not be allowed to become that. 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. Mizrahim vote for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu precisely for that reason and because the Likud has been able to provide them with a home that meets their emotional and cultural needs — not because of Netanyahu's ethnic origins. Former prime ministers of the Likud, such as Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Netanyahu, were all perceived as strong leaders. People believed that they could be trusted to handle Israel's most complex security and diplomatic affairs.
That is why any candidate with the ambition and pretension to head the government of Israel will not focus attention on his ethnic origins. In the case of Mizrahi politicians, however, the temptation to do so is strong. By promoting their ethnic origins, they hope to evoke an emotional and cultural reaction among voters they want to attract. Nevertheless, Israelis have proven time and again that when they elect a prime minister, they still consider security matters the most important gauge in making their decision.
Gabbay and Peretz are looking ahead to the next election and presenting themselves as viable opponents to Netanyahu. The unspoken message of each candidate that they know how to attract Likud supporters because of their ethnic origins only serves to belittle them. Some things never need to be said or even insinuated. If they are true, they simply happen.
Gabbay and Peretz must explain to the public why they are better candidates than Netanyahu or head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid to lead Israel in these turbulent times in a changing Middle East, when negotiations with the Palestinians are at a standstill. And they have to prove that they can do a better job handling the Israeli economy.