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