The Death of the Party
Did Shelly Yachimovich, by avoiding matters of national security, kill Israel’s Labor Party?
“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.”
It snows in Israel at least once every winter. So, why does the Israeli media cover it as though it was a war?