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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

Shelly Yachimovich this week defeated Amir Peretz to become the leader of Israel’s Labor Party. The former television journalist received 54% of the vote. Peretz, a former trade union boss and the much-criticized defense minister who botched the 2006 war with Hizballah, received 43.5%.

Once, leadership elections in the mighty Labor Party were a matter of national, even international, attention since it was the linear descendant of the movement that dominated Jewish nationalist and Israeli politics for all of the years between 1931 and 1977. During that time, David Ben-Gurion and his successors piloted the ship of Zionism through the achievement of statehood, its successful defense, the absorption of masses of immigrants, and subsequent historic victories in Israel’s battle for survival.

None of that, however, has very much to do with the leadership elections that have just taken place in the small, niche party that is Israeli Labor today. Ben-Gurion and Rabin’s movement now holds just 8 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The election of Yachimovich seals Labor’s transformation from undisputed natural party of government to a small, sectoral outfit representing a particular minority in the Israeli mosaic.

Labor’s historic eclipse began, paradoxically, at the moment of one of its greatest triumphs. In 1992, the party returned to power as undisputed leader of a coalition for the first time since 1977. Former Chief of Staff and war hero Yitzhak Rabin, the party leader, became prime minister. In the period that followed, the foundation of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians was transformed, with the birth of the Oslo peace process.

This process began what was meant to be a historic rapprochement between Zionism and the Palestinian national movement. Events showed that there was little basis for the optimism underlying it, and the process collapsed in 2000. Five years of blood and fire and counter-terror warfare followed, costing the lives of 1000 Israelis.

One of the byproducts of the failure of Oslo was the Israeli Labor Party’s indelible association, in the eyes of a very significant section of the Israeli Jewish public, with an ill-thought out strategy which resulted in much death and suffering for Israelis. Since the collapse of Oslo in 2000, Labor has been searching — so far unsuccessfully — for a way back from the wilderness.

It has, in the meantime, been hemorrhaging support. There have been three general elections in Israel since the peace process’s collapse in 2000. In 2003, Labor fell from 25 to 19 seats. The party then added two seats to its tally when Amir Peretz’s small One Nation list joined with Labor. In 2006, under Peretz’s leadership, Labor managed to retain its 21 seats.

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.

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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