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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 Yachimovich’s critics this is what is so uniquely galling and irresponsible about her silence. These critics see her as aiding and abetting Israel’s dangerous journey toward an uncertain and potentially unpleasant future—a frightful path toward a third intifada, international isolation, or both.

And it has wounded her politically. She has alienated key allies inside Labor and undermined her own public image. Hopes from a few months ago that Labor might get 20-plus seats in the Knesset have dimmed as the party’s poll numbers have faltered. Her refusal to talk more directly about the future of the peace process was used as a key rationale by Amir Peretz for his departure from Labor. “Yachimovich does not have the right to give up the issue of peace,” he declared at a press conference announcing his decision to join forces with Tzipi Livni, who is now filling the vacuum left by Yachimovich and threatening Labor’s hold over center-left voters unwilling to cast a vote for Netanyahu or the similarly security-allergic Yair Lapid.

Rumblings inside Labor have grown so loud that her fellow MKs and candidates have begun complaining off the record to reporters about her abandonment of “the political line.” In a withering recent op-ed Uri Misgav, a columnist for Haaretz, summed up the views of many on the left: “With her childish insistence on remaining quiet and not putting in an appearance over any act that falls outside the sphere she has defined as ‘social,’ Yachimovich comes across as irrelevant and presents Labor to the public as a niche party for trade union grievances and contract workers’ demands.”

Here lies perhaps the greatest irony of Yachimovich’s obfuscation: Even though Netanyahu’s government is well on its way to a strong win in Knesset elections, a deeper look suggests that Likud’s apparent position of strength masks real political problems. On the political side, Bibi’s recent diplomatic losses at the United Nations, fractured relations with the United States, and Likud’s move toward increasingly illiberal policies have created real political vulnerabilities for the prime minister. Where Netanyahu holds an advantage is that over the last three years Israel has enjoyed an unprecedented period of relative peace and stability, marked by a significant decline in terrorist incidents. Israelis have confidence in his ability to protect them from harm. For the many voters wary of Netanyahu, “they go to Likud because they are afraid of the left—and the left is not giving them answers,” said Yemini, the Maariv columnist. As one Israeli cab driver said to me: “Bibi fucks the poor.” But he’ll probably vote for him anyway, he added. “I trust him on security.”

To be sure, even if Yachimovich were able to make a compelling argument that Israel should take chances for peace; that the status quo represents more risks than benefits for Israel’s future; or were able to reassure voters that they could trust a center-left party to protect them from terrorism, there is no guarantee it would pave a way to victory. But that she declines to even try makes it virtually impossible to imagine a scenario in which she could ever win a majority in the Knesset. It’s like imagining that an American presidential nominee could win a national election without talking about the economy.

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In the end, however, one can only go so far in holding Shelly Yachimovich responsible for this situation. It is true that she has failed to offer a center-left perspective on Israel’s security challenges, but she is not alone. Assaf Sharon, who is research director at Molad, put it to me best: “The left never took responsibility for the failure of Oslo. They have failed to directly acknowledge the security threats the country is facing. And they have all suffered as a result.”

Instead, the left has largely ceded the discussion of political issues to Netanyahu, who can argue convincingly that the right’s approach to dealing with the Palestinians has brought positive results to the lives of ordinary Israelis. That this approach takes Israel down the road to a one-state solution and is actually antithetical to the stated policy preferences of a majority of Israelis tends to get glossed over because there are few on the left willing to challenge it. To Livni’s credit she has begun to make precisely these arguments, but rather than speak for the center-left she is one of several voices all being drowned out by each other.

For Ari Shavit, Haaretz’s senior correspondent, Yachimovich’s failure is really a collective failure of the center left. “We’ve all failed,” he told me. “And that means Israelis who care about peace and democracy. We’ve spent our time in destroying each other. It’s petty and it’s pathetic.” The left “needs a new fresh constructive approach and no one came up with it,” he added.

The shifting loyalties of center-left politicians and their inability to set aside their differences to form a political movement have only made the situation worse. A combination of Yachimovich, Livni, Peretz, and Lapid could make for a strong political counter-weight to Likud—that foursome would address economic and social issues as well as offer a realistic approach to ending the occupation and resolving the conflict. But instead of uniting for the good of the country, they are fighting amongst themselves as Rome burns and Netanyahu coasts to re-election. Indeed, 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.

This is perhaps the most enduring lesson of the Yachimovich phenomenon and the anger directed against her: She is a convenient target for a movement that has seen its political fortunes so precipitously decline by abandoning its values. “While it’s understandable that people would now point their finger at Yachimovich, this is somewhat unfair. She is not the problem, she is just not enough of a solution. This is a disaster for which everyone on the center-left needs to take responsibility,” says Shavit.

Until the parties of the left and center-left figure out a way to talk seriously about security, they will be on the outside looking in and will be unable to find a way back to a position of national leadership. If Yachimovich’s rise to power is any indication—and her likely status as a weak opposition leader in the Knesset as the country’s politics continue to move rightward—it is a journey that will continue for quite some time to come.

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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?

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