The Incredible Shrinking Israeli Labor Party

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.