Ha’aretz columnist Ari Shavit credits Shelly Yachimovich with two things: “She revived the labour movement and succeeded in channelling the social justice protest into the Labor Party.” Indeed, she and Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party have run their election campaigns entirely on domestic concerns of an egalitarian and communitarian variety: housing subsidies; soaring rent and utility prices; education reform; and a better sharing of the burden in terms of drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the army or national service.
But in tending to the social and economic issues, Yachimovich has chosen to neglect anything to do with security whatsoever. In his accomplished profile of the Labor chair, Michael Cohen describes how during the course of the campaign Yachimovich “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,” Cohen adds, “she has practically nothing to say about any of these issues.” He continues:
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.
Yachimovich has selected silence as her security strategy as a political calculation. Labor as the party of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres remains tied to the Oslo Accords and its aftermath: the good and the bad. On the one hand, two Israeli governments came somewhat close to agreements with Yasser Arafat in 2000 and Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 (though this is a matter of disputation) and unilaterally withdrew all its forces and citizens from Gaza in 2005. Meanwhile, Israelis have suffered through two wars in Gaza, one in Lebanon, and an intifada at home which brought the conflict to the shopping malls and bus stations of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Evidently, Yachimovich has come to the dispiriting conclusion that Israelis, even in the historic peace camp, will hear no more of negotiations until enough water has flowed by and the long nights of chaos and terror have ceased. In order to restore Labor as the largest party of the centre and left, Yachimovich has abandoned talk of two states, ceding this ground to two other Zionist parties: Meretz, the party of social democracy and human rights; and Hatnua, the centrist movement led by Tzipi Livni.
As successful a gambit as this might turn out to be – the final polls projected that Labor might double its present allocation of seats – fundamentally it is an irresponsible and cowardly ploy. It is a form of deceit to suggest the one can be had without the other, that social justice is separable from political justice, that the Palestinians and the occupation can be ignored while life is made a little easier for those on the right side of the Green Line. How is it possible to organise decent housing policy when so much is spent and wasted subsiding apartments in settlements that will one day have to be dismantled? How can Israelis Arabs be better included in political and cultural life when millions of their fellow Arabs in the West Bank remain stateless and under military supervision? What use, as Amos Oz put it, is forcing ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the army when the state that is here in five or ten years’ time might not even be a Jewish one?
Such is the failure of Yachimovich’s vision for Labor in this regard that another Ha’aretz columnist, Gideon Levy, was motivated to say that one “cannot vote for her”, that Labor has “abused its trust”, and Yachimovich’s agenda is “destructive”. Her dodge also caused Amos Oz to assert that “Shelly Yachimovich is worse than Ehud Barak. Barak said, ‘There is no solution.’ Yachimovich says, ‘There is no problem.’” Indeed, both Yachimovich and Lapid have chosen to ignore that, until the major existential question is answered as best it can be, all of Israel’s other political, social, and economic problems can never be wholly resolved. The one cannot be had without the other.
Yachimovich’s agenda is not only a blight on her party, but the movement it embodies. Labour Zionism in its various party forms – Mapai, Mapam, Ahdut Ha’avoda, Rafi, the Alignment – even when it was not in favour of two states has at least been since 1967 representative of a kind of left-wing Zionism which recognises the need to relinquish the lands gained beyond the Green Line, in opposition to the Revisionist Zionism of Herut, Gahal, and now Likud. Since 1993, the two-state solution as propagated by Rabin, Peres, and Ehud Barak has been a central tenet of Labour Zionism, even when it has seemed implausible or impossible, not because it is easy but because it is necessary and just.
In failing to explain that a resolution of Israel’s social and economic inequities and imbalances is impossible without first concluding the occupation of the West Bank and establishing a Palestinian state, Yachimovich has in effect torn down one of the pillars upon which Labour Zionism has stood. Worse, she is in the process of concluding the Labor’s historic role in Israeli political life. Rather than seek a way to discuss the Palestinian question in the light of the failures of the Oslo process, and press home in a fresh way that answering that question is necessary to the future of Israel as both Jewish and democratic, Yachimovich has chosen to ignore it as if there is no life beyond the Wall, and pass advocacy of the necessary Zionist solution of two states for two peoples over to other leaders and parties.
Shelly Yachimovich has transformed Labor, but in the process, she has been a neglectful steward of the party of Rabin and the movement he gave his life to. Under these conditions, a vote for her or indeed Lapid would be a most neglectful act as well.