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Is Israel's Labor Party Finished?

Amir Peretz.

What has become of Israel's left-wing Labor Party some five months after its leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, abruptly defected to establish his breakaway Atzmaut (Independence) Knesset faction?  

Relevant Links
Labor's Platform  Jewish Virtual Library. The principles and positions of the party prior to the 2011 split.
What Went Wrong  Efraim Inbar, BESA Perspectives. The Labor party is unpopular because its policies—not least the stain of the Oslo Accords—which have been out of touch with Israel’s mainstream.
In Its Heyday  Labor Party Archives. Labor once controlled much of Israel’s infrastructure, from the largest labor union to the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) as well as the Jewish Agency and the Haganah defense forces.
Labor's Platform  Jewish Virtual Library. The principles and positions of the party prior to the 2011 split.
In Its Heyday  Labor Party Archives. Labor once controlled much of Israel’s infrastructure, from the largest labor union to the Jewish Agency and the Haganah defense forces.
Labor's Decline  Efraim Inbar, BESA Perspectives. The party has been out of touch with Israel’s mainstream for decades.

Until the center-Right Likud's upset in 1977, every Israeli government was headed by a Laborite.  The party's ideology may have been collectivist, but it had a way of producing singular talents who became the stuff of legend: David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban.

Under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Labor shifted leftward, and, by initiating the 1993 Oslo accords, became indelibly associated with the "peace process."  The party has been at odds with the Israeli center since then, and Ehud Barak's readiness to divide Jerusalem at the 2000 Camp David Summit alienated the mainstream voter further.     

So the once-dominant party has amassed ever more nails in its coffin.  Now it is racked by infighting, fuming over being tethered to the diplomatic policies of the Netanyahu government, and headed by one of the least popular politicians on the scene.  Barak surprised colleagues in January 2010 by pulling out before they could oust him, taking along four comparatively right-leaning loyalists. Barak got to retain his cabinet seat while Labor ministers Yitzhak Herzog, Avishay Braverman, and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had no choice but to go into the opposition. In 2006, Labor lost several luminaries including Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon, and Dalia Itzik to Kadima.

Pundits were quick to pronounce Labor dying, if not outright dead. Yediot Aharonot's Nahum Barnea, doyen of left-leaning columnists, said the party had actually died during Barak's short failed term as prime minister in 2000 but had only now been buried. His colleague Sima Kadmon wrote that "the public doesn't believe the Labor Party can be revived." One columnist at Ma'ariv adjudged Labor to be "a pile of rubble"; another wrote that Barak had dealt Labor "the final blow." They were in line with popular sentiment: A poll in Yediot the day after Barak's exit found 53% of Israeli voters thought it heralded "the end of the Labor Party."

But reports of Labor's demise appear to have been exaggerated.  The very same poll also revealed that if elections were held immediately, Labor would manage to retain 8 of its 13 Knesset seats. 

Since Barak's departure, the party brought back former general-secretary Micha Harish to be its temporary chairman and tasked him with overseeing Labor's revival. Tens of thousands of new members have been recruited as part of a dynamic race for the party's leadership. David Ben-Gurion's grandchildren have publicly invested in the movement he once led. Even rudderless, recent polls continue to show the party capturing at least eight seats.

Of course, how Labor will ultimately fare in national elections (expected before 2013 when the current Knesset's term expires) will depend on what position it stakes out on the political spectrum—and that, in turn, very much depends on who becomes the party's new leader. The open field includes MK Isaac Herzog, son of Israel's sixth president Chaim Herzog; MK Shelly Yachimovich, a former left-oriented journalist; Amram Mitzna, a rehabilitated previous party leader; Erel Margalit, a millionaire entrepreneur; MK Amir Peretz, another former party leader; and Shlomo Buhbut, a local government politician.

But even if a great talent steps in to fill the leadership vacuum, Labor is not likely to ever again become a ruling party. One reason is that its leaders and functionaries continue to shill for Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas in promoting the message that no diplomatic progress can be made because of the Netanyahu government; not—as most Israelis believe—through any fault of the Palestinian Arabs.

Each of the contenders for leadership claims to have signed up thousands of new members ostensibly pledged to vote for them in the September 12th party primary and subsequent run-off contest. By that yardstick, Peretz claims to have brought in the most signatures, followed by Herzog and Yachimovich. Assuming the petition claims are true, Labor's membership base could emerge as the second biggest behind Likud.

With a strong leader—Mitzna, Herzog, Yachimovich, or Peretz—preliminary polling suggests that Labor could, at least hypothetically, capture 17-19 mandates. Yet when the dust settles much depends on whether the party, which still defines itself as social-democratic, can be positioned at least within shouting distance of the center-Left, enabling it to pick up votes from Kadima. That will not be easy.

For one thing, all the frontrunners have taken positions that are essentially out of line with public sentiment.  Mitzna says outright that he's returned to politics to mobilize the "peace camp." Peretz professes that he would not require the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; Yachimovich prefers to take vague stands on security issues and to focus instead on promoting greater government involvement in the economy. Margalit supports an interim Palestinian state now along the parameters of the security barrier. Herzog has been arguably more judicious while still calling for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

As for Barak's new party, were elections held today, Atzmaut would not cross the electoral threshold.

But while the obituaries for Labor were premature, the party still has to find a way to avoid getting permanently sidelined.  Whoever wins the September primary would be wise to make a run to meet voters where they are: in Israel's post-Oslo center.

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Ellen on June 21, 2011 at 9:28 am (Reply)
The dismal decline and disrepute that have befallen Jewish liberals and leftists is one of the joys to behold in our current Jewish world - both in Israel and in America where it's less obvious, but more fateful.

In Israel, Jewish liberals rarely intermarry and, for all intents and purposes, can't assimilate since there is no larger group of people they want to dissolve their identity into. In America, that is exactly what is happening, which explains why even when a majority of people who self-identify in public opinion polls as Jews might still support Obama, in the affiliated and active Jewish community, it's rarer and rarer to meet people like that.

David Mamet's recent ranting screed against liberalism, and very autobiographically against Jewish liberalism, is only the most recent and spectacular example of the ongoing demise of this very outdated ideology. Mamet's contention is that liberalism is a religion, very much like Judaism. And it is one whose assumptions can never be proven, thus it is based on faith rather than evidence. It has a track record of monumental waste and destruction, and if we include the left, mass murder on an enormous scale. But, it makes people feel self-righteous and provides them with the illusion that they are living a purposeful life.

This explains why Jewish liberals are so loath to give up their affiliation. Having abandoned their real religion - Judaism, they can't very well give up their newfound religion - liberalism, given that there is nothing else left for them to cling to as a self-definition. Grubby materialism? Existential angst?

Thanks for a great and timely piece, Mr. Jager. I look forward to the further decline of the Jewish left with great enthusiasm. on June 22, 2011 at 1:08 am (Reply)
While I admit I laughed at humor of Ellens post, its a bit painful to describe the demise of Jews as a “joy to behold”. This kind of Jew-versus-Jew spite resembles what the ancient Iosephus described while the Roman Armies encircled Yrushalayim and killed all Jews within. I hope Jews today appreciate the beauty of Jewish diversity, and love fellow Jews, especially Jews they understand least. The shilling by the Labor party frustrates me to know end. Its hard to imagine how someone like Peretz can be so confidently wrong. It is ethically a mistake to sacrifice oneself for an enemy. But I hope Labor comes to its senses rather than fall apart.
SW on June 22, 2011 at 4:35 pm (Reply)
I think it likely that Ellen's comment was not intended to make others laugh.

Jewish Ideas Daily has had an earlier article about Lenin's Jewish roots, and we know full well of the "Jewish Problem" as expounded upon by a supposedly "Jewish" and rather clearly anti-Jewish Karl Marx.

Rather than sing Kumbaya that all self-identified Jews including absolute Marxists and Jews-for-Jesus, referencing another interesting JID article, what the theme here is not "all Jews for all Jews all the time," but rather that there are some distinctly sensible ideas with fine Jewish lineage which argue against the kind of Leftist stance which Brakha observes to be "so confidently wrong."

There is nothing Jewish about being "confidently" or consistently wrong, and therefore inclusiveness which includes "wrong" through some kind of post-Hegelian synthesis game seems foolish.

An old Jiddische proverb reminds that "when speaking to a fool, two fools are speaking." By extensions being inclusive with those "so confidently wrong" is not inclusiveness for the sake of Judaism's future, but an opposite.

Embrace liberalism? Of the Enlightment sort meaning freedom in thinking, I can see this. Oppose conservatism of the sort Hayek wrote, I can see this too. But include what Ellen speaks of as liberalism and the Labor Party calls progressive when a critic of Ellen's calls it "confidently wrong" seems foolish.

One does not apply Hegelian synthesis nor inclusiveness with "wrong" any more than with "evil." Some things are not meant to be "included" except by those ready to tear Israel in specific and Jews in general apart, limb from limb.

Given the most recent "never recognize Israel" comments from the PA, a "peace process" without a real peacemaker on the other side is not synthesis, not inclusiveness and not logical. While the rabbis advise us to prepare for war while preparing for peace, they do advise preparing for war. What about this is so difficult for Labor to fathom? There is no wonder the electorate is slowly abandoning them.
Dan on June 23, 2011 at 2:08 am (Reply)
The religous brought down the government in 77 and the Rabbis told their people to vote Herut.

The religious parties have always been the supporting fulcrum that the government needs to be in power and who ever pays them more, gets their support.

Sometimes that support is just in "not opposing".
SW on June 24, 2011 at 3:48 pm (Reply)
While agreeing in some manner with the other comments, I find Dan's quite instructive. Voting for "whoever pays them more" is rather the consistent path which all collectivist nations have now come to their debt crisis moments. While it may seem to be clever to vote one's self "more," this eventually means "less" to many more as the cycle repeats. While it may have a "religious party" coloring in some of Israel's previous elections, it still comes to the same thing. As voters come to realize that voting for "more" for themselves in the short term guarantees "less" for them and everyone else in the long term, there will be more clarity to the whole mess. Until then, I expect governments to fall at the hands of those who voted themselves "more" from such governments willing to buy today's vote against tomorrow's impossible-to-deliver promise. In this regard, the Labor Party and the religious parties are really rather alike.

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