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The Death of the Party

Did Shelly Yachimovich, by avoiding matters of national security, kill Israel’s Labor Party?

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Shelly Yachimovich. (Joanna Neborsky)
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“Shelly Yachimovich is a traitor.”

“She is a horrible person.”

“She is deeply cynical.”

“She is full of shit. She is the shallowest party leader that Labor has ever had.”

“For the peace camp she is the worst nightmare—a modern-day Golda Meir. She is serious about nothing.”

What is most remarkable about these comments, uttered by a collection of activists, analysts, a former Labor member of Knesset, and a top political reporter, isn’t their venom. This is Israeli politics, after all. What’s most striking—and underscores a problem much deeper than the usual back-and-forth of daily politics—is that they were not uttered by Shelly Yachimovich’s right-wing opponents, but by the Labor Party leader’s nominal left-leaning allies.

For the past 20 years, Shelly Yachimovich, now 52, has been at the center of Israel’s media and political scenes. She started out as reporter for the now-defunct daily Al HaMishmar, moved on to become the host of the popular radio program Hakol Diburim, and eventually rose to become a prominent TV anchor and host of Israel’s version of Meet the Press. A crusading and outspoken journalist, she used her perch to offer a withering critique of Israel’s embrace of neo-liberal economic policies and the growing challenges facing the nation’s middle class. She targeted Israel’s wealthy tycoons but also occasionally its settlers and the country’s religious establishment. She made her share of enemies, including, most famously, Rani Rahav, the PR flack for billionaire banker Shari Arison, who famously called her a “bad, bad, bad” woman. Indeed, Yachimovich’s politics were at one time so far from the mainstream that she once voted for Hadash, a Communist, bi-national party.

But in 2006, at the invitation of then-Labor leader Amir Peretz, Yachimovich entered politics as a Labor MK, beginning a meteoric rise through the political ranks that led to her ascendancy as Labor Party chairman in 2011. She became the first woman to helm the party since Golda Meir retired from the position in 1974, and she has spent the 15 months since she became leader focusing, with laser-like precision, on economic and social issues. She has also deliberately cultivated a darker, more fearsome image in order to play against gender stereotypes. As a close Labor ally said to me off the record, “She is not attractive, but she radiates toughness. She will cut someone’s throat if she needs to.”

Yachimovich—who is credited even by her critics for revitalizing the Labor Party, returning it to its social democratic roots, reforming an ossified political structure, and making the party an attractive alternative for young voters—should have spent this political season as a standard-bearer for a revitalized Israeli left. Instead, she has—with a speed that has shocked even some of Israel’s most jaded political observers—become one of the most polarizing figures in Israeli politics.

That’s because for all Yachimovich has done to bring attention to Israel’s social and economic inequalities, she has also refused to address the single issue that overhangs every Israeli election: security. As Ben-Dror Yemini, a prominent columnist for the Israeli daily Maariv, succinctly put it: “ ‘It’s the economy stupid.’ might work in the United States, but it doesn’t work in Israel.” Yachimovich might not be interested in war, but war is interested in her and the future of the country she aspires to lead.

For many on the Israeli left, this almost complete refusal talk about the occupation of the Palestinian territories, the future of the two-state solution, or the major security challenges facing Israel is the quintessential example of the politics of obfuscation. By trying to move the traditionally left-wing party to the center, she may win over some voters in an increasingly right-leaning electoral climate, but she is shirking her obligation to tell the hard truths about the country’s current path. While this may be smart short-term politics—Labor’s traditional image on these key questions is a political liability—its longer-term implications for the future of the peace camp in Israel are quite troubling.

On the one hand, Yachimovich’s candidacy has become an experiment as to whether a center-left politician can succeed while evincing little to no interest in the most important political issues facing the country. On the other, it’s become a broader litmus test about the political future of the Labor Party and the viability of the two-state solution it has long stood for.

***

In the weeks I spent reporting this profile, including one traveling in Israel, I heard more than a few negative words about Shelly Yachimovich, but inconsistent and lazy were definitely not among them.

As a member of the Knesset, Yachimovich has pushed a steady stream of legislative priorities: whistleblower legislation, greater protections for workers, extended health-care coverage and maternity leave, a law requiring greater transparency for those lobbying the Knesset, and perhaps her most popular triumph, the so-called “cashier’s law” that requires employers to provide chairs for clerks as they perform their duties in Israeli shops.

It was Yachimovich’s dedication to these social issues—coupled with great timing—that smoothed the path for her rise to power within Labor. When she threw her hat into the ring for the party’s chairmanship in the 2011 election, the country was still captivated by the J14 social-justice tent protests. “At the time things came together perfectly for Yachimovich,” says Noam Sheizaf, editor of the +972 blog. “She was on the ballot at a moment in which social justice superseded traditional conflict-related issues.”

While she is certainly not the first Labor leader to strongly push an economic agenda (Amir Peretz did the same in 2006, and to a lesser extent so did Ehud Barak in 1999), few Israeli leaders have ever done it as passionately as Yachimovich. “It’s not a secret that I put economic and social affairs at the top of my agenda,” she said in an interview with Globes magazine last October. “That’s why I entered politics. That’s the platform on which I was elected leader of the Labor Party. I didn’t try to sell other agendas. And that is the platform on which the Labor Party will return to power.” (Yachimovich’s spokesperson refused several requests for an interview.)

She backed up her words with actions. As the party’s leader, Yachimovich brought a slate of newcomers into Labor, like Stav Shaffir, a prominent, twentysomething leader of the J14 protests. And last month, she unveiled an ambitious economic agenda featuring a cornucopia of goodies for the middle class, such as a higher minimum wage, longer maternity leaves, more public housing, free day care, and even free public transportation in Tel Aviv. While the plan was pilloried by critics who said it was unrealistic and underfinanced, these initiatives are a direct response to what Gidi Grinstein of the Re’ut Institute, a nonprofit policy group in Tel Aviv, calls the “triple whammy” that has caused a massive crisis in the Israeli middle class: stagnating real income, the declining quality and quantity of government services, and the rising cost of living. It’s a crisis, Grinstein told me, that is “25 years in the making—the result of failed privatization and regulation efforts, which led to a concentration of economic power in few private hands; an electoral system that grants disproportionate political influence to select groups, such as settlers, labor unions, and the ultra-orthodox; as well as a heavy defense burden.”

Even those who have tangled with Yachimovich in the past offer praise for her social democratic focus. The No. 2 person on Labor’s election slate, MK Isaac “Buji” Herzog, who lost to Yachimovich in last year’s Labor Party primaries, was effusive in his praise, comparing her in an interview to the former Brazilian President Lula. She is a revolutionary character, he told me, with “the right set of values for Israel.”

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julis123 says:

The Labor party was in decline long before Shelly for 2 reasons. Fist of all it produced a long series of hacks (ie—avrum Burg and Fuad) who were just terrible. Second of all it is identified with the failed Oslo peace process. Because Land for Peace has become Land For Missiles the average Israeli wants nothing to do with making any more concessions in the near future. Personally I think she is smart to emphasize domestic issues over Palestinian issues. At this stage at least, it is clear that the Pals are not interested in forming a state, so why beat your head against a wall.

Gideon Remez says:

” the recent spectacle of a failed unity effort
among Lapid, Livni, and Yachimovich, which led to more public
name-calling and acrimony, speaks volumes about the left’s dysfunction” — it isn’t the left’s dysfunction, as none of the three is or claims to be a left-winger. The only genuine left-wing Zionist option is Meretz, which combines the peace/defense issue with the social/economic one, has the parliamentary record to prove it, and can be trusted never to provide a fig leaf for a Netanyahu-led coalition. Polls show a significant rise in support for Meretz, but the article mentions it only in passing. Well, the writer spent a whole week in Israel — now that’s real in-depth familiarity with the local scene.

An opposition party unwilling to exploit Netanyahu’s manifest failure to stem the precipitous decline of Israel’s public image is like a football team that has abandoned the passing game. It’s just not going to get very far.

PhillipNagle says:

The peace process which was really never more than a sham is now a total wreck. Socalism has been proven to be a disaster which long inhibited Israeli growth. The problem is not that Labor is in shambles, the question is why it still exists.

Redwood509 says:

Shelly is a two bits Stalinist – MAPAM style! (The Left that denied Stalin’s atrocities until the mid 60′s-one step before full time Communists). No dissent, adherence to the thoughts of the “Maximum leader” (she), an inconsequential Voice of Israel “news reporter” (purveying propaganda and talking points of the Left on a daily basis), where she learned how not only to lie, but how to coach the familiar noises in ways both academics, the media brown nosers, Kibutzniks and assorted Labor activists could identify with the noises as our voice. She is a hollow person, utterly unbelievable and totally immersed in safe bets the Israeli left has been dieting on since the early days of Zionism. Note how few Sephardim surround her, how vapid, vacuous and shallow any of her speeches, appearances, even her juvenile commercials make one long for the old days of Ben Gurion when thousands of indoctrinated and loyal activists from the Hashomer Hatzair, Ha’Noar Ha’Oved, used to arrive on French Chasson buses to what today is Rabin Square, tel Aviv, for phony election rallies whose outcome were predetermined by vote fixing, cash deals, and under the table shananigans.

Robert Starkand says:

The writer’s view that there is a “realistic approach to ending the occupation” shows that the writer is just as out of touch with reality as the subject. There is no partner for peace. Until a viable Palestinian leader can get up and say that there must be a two state solution with a Jewish state and an Arab state, Israel must do what it can to convince the Palestinian people that a one Arab state solution is impossible.

Robert Starkand says:

Did it ever occur to you that maybe its the world’s failure to appreciate Jewish self-determination?

Basil Yacoub says:

No issue is more important than the PEACE issue. Israel’s consecutive Zionist leaders were not interested in real peace. Real peace comes when the citizens of Israel understand that peace is necessity for their own survival. More than 6 million Palestinian Arabs live in historic Palestine. Only the most naïve or stupid who will ignore this fact. Israel is only a drop in the ocean and many intelligent Jews who live in Israel or abroad, know and appreciate that only a real peace based on true justice can sustain the state of Israel. Peace and justice are precondition for Israel existence. Any Israeli leader who deviate him/herself from this fact is opportunist.

As usaual Basil Yacoub misses the point in his rant. It is Israel that has made great sacrifices for peace. Ahud Barak and Olmert made exceptional offers to the Palestinians but none were good enough. As a result we received Yassar Arafat’s war against the Jews; numerous CITIZENS were killed and maimed by terrorists. Israel will never return to the 1967 lines; they’re undenfenseable. Refugees- any plan that demands the return of so called “refugees” to Israel is just another plan to destroy the Jewish State of Israel.
I disagree Michael Cohen that Israel’s refusal to commit suicide will lead to a one State, rather it will take more time until the Palestinians will accept the Jewish State and then there will be two States (or three States- Israel, Palestine in the West Bank, and the Hamastan State in Gaza.

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The Death of the Party

Did Shelly Yachimovich, by avoiding matters of national security, kill Israel’s Labor Party?