Now that the curtain has finally come down on the prospect of the Labor Party entering the government, it is time to take a look at what used to be a powerful and vibrant movement but which today more resembles a busy archeological site.
Don’t get me wrong: the basic social-democratic ideology of the Labor Party is as relevant today as it ever was.
A combination of security and human rights; a true willingness to check out any possibility in the direction of a political settlement with our neighbors, without compromising Israel’s security; a combination of private initiative and government involvement in the economy in those situations in which the free market fails to deliver the goods (as in the case of the price of housing); an inherent belief in the importance of organized labor; a pragmatic approach to complicated issues; and an aversion to radicalism. But most important of all is a commitment to pluralism (despite David Ben-Gurion’s “without Herut and Maki”).
The ideology is not the problem. The problem is that as a party Labor has lost its cohesion and purposefulness.
But worst of all, though its team in the Knesset is made up of some impressive individuals, they resemble a bunch of non-commissioned officers, without any foot soldiers of generals. That includes the current leader of party, Isaac Herzog, and the contenders to the leadership Sheli Yacimovich, Amir Peretz (both failed leaders of the party) and Erel Margalit.
I had some hopes with regard to Margalit, and like him I sometimes feel like shouting out profanities – except that what he said before the profanity: “give us back our state” is political bunk.
Nobody “took” the state away from us (social democrats and liberals alike). We lost it – and if we want it back we have to find a way to win it back.
What actually happened to Labor? First of all – Benjamin Netanyahu, take note – former Labor leader Shimon Peres managed to prevent two generations of potential heirs from rising (I call this phenomenon “political castration”).
The result was that the party hierarchy was disrupted, and today almost all of the Labor Party’s MKs did not grow up in the party, and are political novices just like the hand-picked members of Yesh Atid and Kulanu.
The second development, is that the Labor Party has moved further to the Left, just as the Likud has moved further to the Right. While Likud has shed its liberals, Labor has shed most of its oldstyle Mapainiks.
Why has this happened? One reason is the Six Day War – especially the occupation/liberation of the West Bank/Judea-Samaria. The Labor Party was much slower than Likud in adopting an ideological position on the issue. For years it seemed comfortable with the status quo, passively waiting for something to change.
However, the outbreak of the first intifada in December 1987, and the political developments in its aftermath, which led up to the Oslo Accords, definitely placed Labor on the Left on this issue, while the Likud, which did not act to overthrow the Oslo Accords after Netanyahu’s electoral victory in 1996, was uncommitted to making any further progress in the direction of the two-state solution, despite lip service occasionally paid by Netanyahu to the issue. Largely for demographic reasons, a majority of Israeli voters have opted for the right-wing position on this particular issue – which happens to be the main issue over which general elections are won or lost.
Since on this issue there are only two possible positions – the right-wing one that claims Israel should remain in control of the whole of the land west of the River Jordan, and the left-wing one that claims that refusing to consider the alternative will lead to a disaster – there is no way to bridge over this divide.
The second reason Labor has moved further to the Left and Likud to the Right is the Kadima episode. The Kadima Party managed to draw many pragmatic/ liberal Likudniks and many centrist Laborites into its ranks. Kadima has, in the meantime, gone down the drain, but few of the pragmatic/liberal Likudniks and centrist Laborites have returned home.
So what now? My guess is that Labor will not manage to recover in the foreseeable future from Herzog’s attempt to lead the party into Netanyahu’s government. I believe that had he had one of Labor’s old political foxes by his side (someone like Moshe Shahal, who was one of the architects of the 1984-88 national unity governments), he would have been spared the humiliation. However, all things being equal, the party would still have been in trouble, for all the other reasons enumerated above.
Now the party will simply go through the ritual of yet another leadership contest, which whatever the outcome will not herald a new era. Some day it will happen. In the meantime Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid – a political featherweight – will benefit, though I doubt his ability to replace Netanyahu.
Things are going to get much worse before they get better.
The writer is a political scientist, and a retired Knesset employee.