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The Incredible Shrinking Israeli Labor Party

The once-mighty party of Ben-Gurion and Rabin is now looking small and rather lost.

by
Jonathan Spyer

Bio

September 24, 2011 - 11:24 am
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In 2009, after the botched Second Lebanon War on Peretz’s watch at the Defense Ministry, the party contested the elections under Ehud Barak’s leadership and achieved only 13 seats.

This year, Barak split Labor, taking other MKs with him, leaving the party with just 8 seats.

So in six years, following the collapse of its Oslo project, Israeli Labor fell from 25 seats to 8. It is now the fourth largest party in the Knesset. A sectoral party, Yisrael Beiteinu which represents immigrants from the former Soviet Union, polled higher.

Paradoxically, part of Labor’s long-standing platform — the willingness for territorial compromise with the Palestinians — has now become accepted by the Israeli center. But this willingness goes together with a hard-headed skepticism regarding just when, how, and to whom any concessions would be made. This disenchanted creed has no place for the architects of Oslo. Today, even the dovish, center-left slot in Israeli politics is held by Kadima, a party consisting largely of former Likud people..

This leaves Labor, the once-mighty party of Ben-Gurion and Rabin, looking small and rather lost.

Can anything change this? Yachimovich thinks so. Yachimovich has received the support of a number of the leaders of the recent social protests in Israel. She has long campaigned on social issues and she is expected to stress social internal and domestic matters in her leadership of the party.

Yachimovich is almost certainly wrong, however, in believing that a new, social-based agenda will reverse Labor’s decline.

Israel is currently facing a profound and rapid shift in its strategic fortunes, as a result of regional change. The main strategic challenge of recent years has been a largely Islamist alliance led by Iran. This camp still exists and is still a danger. But the rise of an aggressive, Islamist Turkey, the likely emergence of a more hostile Egypt under Islamist influence, and the ongoing challenge of Palestinian rejection of historic compromise are not going to be conducive to a style of politics which likes to pretend that external threats are mainly illusions. This is the default position of Shelly Yachimovich, who has little or nothing to say on these matters.

Which is fine. There are indeed social problems in Israel, and it’s quite legitimate to have a party mainly concerned with pointing these out. Such a party, however, is not going to be a candidate for leading governments in Israel any time in the near future.

So Labor, once a colossus on the Israeli political scene, is now a third-tier party. Under Yachimovich’s leadership, it looks set to remain one.

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Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2011).
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