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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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For a party in the political doldrums and reliant on a tired and out-of-touch group of political veterans, Yachimovich was a breath of fresh air. In the Labor Party leadership election, her volunteer army of thousands both online and offline out-organized, out-enthused, and overwhelmed her opponents. Her appeal comes from both her obvious political charisma and also her compelling, nontraditional public image. When Yachimovich talks about the middle class it is not mere rhetoric: She is divorced (her son is currently serving in the army), resides alone in a small flat in Tel Aviv, and is known for riding her bicycle around town. It is a humble image quite different from that held by the current prime minister or even the majority of politicians in the country. Like her mentor, Amir Peretz, she has a down-to-earth element to her personality that is a crucial part of her political draw.


But for all that Yachimovich does, it is what she doesn’t do that has garnered so much ill will, particularly in the run-up to the Jan. 22 election. During this campaign, she has given no major speeches or comments about the occupation, about Iran, about the Arab Spring, about the future of the settlements, and so on. Unless she is asked, she has practically nothing to say about any of these issues. In her political manifesto titled Us she remarkably makes no mention of the issues that have been at the heart of Israeli politics since the country’s founding. It is the most startling element of her rise to power: She is the head of a party long associated with the vision of a two-state solution and yet has nothing to say about the existential questions that will shape Israel’s future. When asked about how she would bring about peace with the Palestinians, Yachimovich regularly mouths the platitude that she supports the Clinton Parameters from more than 12 years ago—but not much else.

It’s this position—or rather this lack of position—that has earned her withering criticism from the Israeli left. On the editorial page of Haaretz it is practically pro forma for the paper’s columnists to lacerate Yachimovich for her complete inattention to security matters. And over the past several months, as security concerns have taken on even greater prominence with Operation Pillar of Defense, the Palestinian bid for statehood in the United Nations General Assembly, and the announcement of new settlement construction in the West Bank, it has shined a bright light on the paucity of her strategy.

For Daniel Levy, a former Labor foreign-policy adviser, Yachimovich’s “lack of security focus is a result of Israelis having moved so far to the right that they have given up hope or expectation that you can move forward on a two-state solution.” It is a reflection of the recurrent argument you hear from Israelis—even those that support a two-state solution—that Israel has no partner for peace. National polling bears this out: While approximately two thirds of Israelis say they support a two-state solution, 55 percent of Israeli Jews agree with the view that a “lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians” will never happen. This pessimism about the possibility of a breakthrough has bolstered support for far-right parties and in particular Benjamin Netanyahu, who offers voters an uncompromising pledge to protect Israel’s security and avoid any settlement deal with the Palestinians that doesn’t provide ironclad guarantees against future attacks.

More than anything else, that appears to be the reason that Yachimovich has simply chosen to avoid what is clearly a losing issue for Labor and to focus on the growing cost of living and economic anxiety as a tool for returning the party to a position of power. Indeed, Buji Herzog admits that this is a highly coordinated Labor strategy. For years, said Herzog, “Labor was only identified with the peace process” and not the “core social issues” that had once defined the party. This, argued Herzog, led to disastrous election after election for Labor, including the last Knesset ballot, which saw the party score a mere 13 seats—a total that was soon reduced to eight after Ehud Barak fled the party and joined Netanyahu’s government as defense minister.

“The fact that the left was considered only a peace movement and not a social justice movement is a real problem for the left,” said Nissim Calderon, a professor at Ben Gurion University who is also on the slate for the left-wing Meretz party. “Labor and the left ignored the poor—and that undermined support for their peace agenda,” he told me. Yachimovich’s agenda, Calderon argued, is a function of the party’s desperation to win back that support and also remain relevant.

Public-opinion polling suggests that this a fairly accurate reflection of the Israeli electorate’s current mindset. A recent survey done for the Jerusalem-based think tank Molad shows that less than a third of Israelis believe that the left is able to effectively govern the country. Only 28 percent said that “the left offers constructive solutions for security challenges faced by the state.” As Herzog pointedly told me, Labor’s strategy is specifically endorsed by the party’s U.S. political consultant, Stan Greenberg, who has advised Labor Party leaders going back to Shimon Peres in 1996.

Yachimovich has proved adept at seeing this strategy through, employing a tidy bit of revisionist history when necessary. Labor “is not a leftist party and never was,” she said in November, arguing that it was always “a centrist party.” She even went so far as to recently sign Labor’s surplus votes agreement (an arrangement where surplus votes, beyond the current 2 percent threshold, are combined between two similar parties) with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid rather than Labor’s traditional partner, Meretz. The intended message was clear: Labor has more in common with the middle-of-the-road Lapid than with the left-wing Meretz. When Yachimovich is confronted with more controversial issues, like the future of settlements in the West Bank, she hews to the center or flip-flops. In 2005, for example, she complained that while “a welfare state was being obliterated here … a substitute welfare state was being established beyond the Green Line.” Yet just last year, she said that those who would argue “if there were no settlements there would be a welfare state within Israel’s borders” have “no connection to reality.”


But it is on the question of two-state solution and the Palestinians that Yachimovich’s absence from the public debate is so glaring and problematic. Despite the fact that the majority of Israelis see no partner for peace, few believe that the current status quo can be maintained forever. At some point, perhaps in the not too distant future, Israel will face difficult even existential decisions about the status of the West Bank and the more than 2,600,000 Palestinians who live there. That these issues are rarely confronted these days speaks to a disturbing national delusion among Israelis—what some call the “normalization” of the conflict—and a refusal to come to grips with the country’s long-term challenges.

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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?