New Labour in Israel?

All the talk after the recent election is on Yesh Atid and the unprecedented achievement of Yair Lapid, who formed his party a year ago and entered the Knesset with 19 seats. However, what misses from the analysis is the performance of the Israeli Labour Party (Avoda) led by Shelly Yachimovich, which gained 15 seats.

It is saddening to see what became of the party who was led by great politicians like Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Since 1999 (the last time Labour formed the government when Ehud Barak was the PM), Labour has a serious vacuum of leadership, which led the party to become the 4th biggest party in 2009 and now just the 3rd biggest party. Since Barak resigned in 2001, the party had 7 different chairmen, none of them managed to stop the votes going to other left and centre-left parties and the party’s status been eroded by joining almost every coalition that was formed in Israel.

In this campaign, Yachimovich was very clear that she sees herself as alternative to PM Netanyahu and that she will prefer to sit in opposition than to join a government led by Netanyahu. The party put all the eggs in the socio-economic basket and presented a comprehensive platform (something that the ruling Likud party didn’t), adding to the list two of the leaders of the social protests of 2011, but kept silent in relation to settlement building and the peace process. That wasn’t what the public expected of the Labour Party – all those middle class voters which were up for grabs were interested in simple solutions for the ‘burden sharing’ and for living cost & housing issues, Labour didn’t speak for them and for their aspirations unfortunately.

While Yachimovich should get credit for reducing the party’s debts and for renewing activity in more than 100 branches of the party since elected to lead the party, she is not seen by the Israeli public as a credible candidate to be PM, she is seen more as a militant social-democrat and this doesn’t win elections. She managed a very disappointing result of 15 seats and let many potential centrist voters go to parties like Yesh Atid and Hatnua. Labour had a real chance to progress and become the 2nd biggest party but it failed badly. Yachimovich wanted to represent all those hundreds of thousands who took to the streets but with her policies she turned them away to other parties.

This brings to mind the wilderness years of our Labour Party in the 80s and in the beginning of the 90s, and maybe Yachimovich and her party would learn the lesson of their sister party. Having been defeated 4 times in elections by the Conservative party, the Labour Party undergone massive rebranding to “New Labour” and realised that in order to win elections the party needs to capture the centre ground – Party leader Tony Blair was instrumental for it and in 1997 elections the party won its largest ever majority.

It is therefore not enough for the Israeli Labour Party to be in opposition and oppose what the next government will do but also to propose a clear and attractive alternative which will capture the hearts of the voters – as the results in Israel suggests this can be done by moving towards the centre where there a lot of voters. The party needs to be reformed from the top to the bottom, needs a serious policy review and needs its own charismatic leader to lead and make it again a relevant party which can return to power in the next elections. Blair did it for Labour, who will do it for the Israeli Labour Party? Is there a hidden ‘Blair’ in the party? That’s a question that the party and its members need to answer. The earlier this question is answered, the faster the journey to power will begin.

Tal Ofer is a Member of Labour Party, Progress and the European Jewish Parliament. He can be found on twitter @TalOfer, and has a website:

About the Author
Tal Ofer is a former parliamentary researcher and now Deputy at the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He actively fights antisemitism and delegitimisation of Israel. In Summer 2014 he masterminded a campaign to target Tricycle Theater donors, which led to reverse of boycott of UK Jewish Film Festival.