The upcoming elections are going to be crucial for the future of the Labor party, which has suffered a steady decline in its Knesset presence, from a high of 49 seats in 1969 to the present eight. The departure of Ehud Barak and four others last year has done the party only good, and the new chair, Shelly Yachimovich, has not only brought in about 20,000 new members, many of them young, but has also restarted and inspired a worn-out party machine, which had pretty much stopped functioning as a result of the its long decline. Her call to attend Labor’s ideological conference two weeks ago was hugely successful, and more than 1,000 party rank and file used the opportunity to touch base and start preparing Labor’s new agenda.
However, to the frustration of many party stalwarts, Yachimovich has mostly avoided addressing key issues that do no relate to her core cause — dealing with the restoration of Israel’s social and economical fabric. She deserves credit for identifying and addressing socio-economic woes much earlier than other politicians and before any of the public protests that hit the streets of Israel last summer. And while these concerns are expected to be central themes of the September election, her reluctance to make any statements of consequence regarding controversial but critical topics — Israel’s continued control over the territories, relations with the Arab minority, and growing apprehension over the erosion of the status quo vis-à-vis the religious establishment, to name a few — leave many Labor supporters wondering where she is headed.
In her dealings with the Labor establishment, Yachimovich has established herself as a tough operator, ignoring or bypassing many of the party functionaries who were used to having at least some say when it came to the party’s internal affairs. Her quick embrace of the call for early elections — not that she had much of a choice — and her apparent readiness to conduct the party’s primary elections within a very short time, taking into her own hands considerable control over the shape of Labor’s Knesset list, further fortify her image as a cool-headed politician. These credentials will become useful if Labor, as predicted by recent polls, will at least double its number of Knesset seats and become a potential partner for coalition talks.
What remains to be seen is whether Yachimovich will indeed stand up for Labor’s principles, or whether she will instead emulate her recent predecessors, who had no qualms about joining any government under any pretense, thus contributing to the near-demise of the party. Either way, her choice will determine the future of Labor.