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