Is Israel's Labor Party Finished?

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, June 21, 2011

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?  

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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