Josef Olmert

The Labor Party – no more

The Labor Party chose today a new leader, Merav Michaeli Mk, so first of all congratulations. Nothing to do with my political sympathies, but when there is a winner, then why not be polite and congratulate. That said, I wonder if even Ms. Michaeli herself is celebrating, as the numbers given by the Labor party election commission about the contest, are a political joke. 9000 people participated, of whom about 6500 voted for the new leader. More or less 1/1000 of the electorate of Israel. With this number in mind, it is a safe prediction to make-Labor cannot cross the threshold for Knesset representation in the upcoming 23 March elections, moreover with this modest dowry, who can really bend over backwards to solicit Ms. Michaeli to join another list/party of the center with what is left of her party? . Put simply, the party of Ben Gurion is no more. Not yet the formal funeral, but for all intents and purposes the actual one. In fact, the real important news about the Labor party today is not the election of Ms.Michaeli, it is the announcement published ahead of the results, that Arnon Ben David the chairman of the Histadrut formally left the party. Wow-the first time in the history of the century old histadrut, that its leader is not from Mapai or its later mutation, the Labor party. This announcement may have been timed to the day of the primary or not, but it was so symbolic, and it constitutes the near formal burial of the Labor party.

It is customary when delivering an eulogy to commend the deceased , but in this case, I really find it difficult if not hypocritical to do it. I am from Nahalat Jabotinski in Binyamina, an old stronghold of the Beitar and Herut movements. Yes, the great late Ehud Manor told the praises of Binyamina of once, and while I have no intention of disputing anything he wrote, I cannot but make the following simple observation-it was not nice to grow up in Israel of the 1950’s , the days of the total hegemony of Labor in all aspects of the country’s life , that is to say, if you came from a place called after the great Ze’ev Jabotinski, and it was so, because the Israeli democracy of early days was an interesting case to be further learnt and defined in Political Science classes. It had all the formalities of a democracy, but there was one ”little” problem-you needed to have the right party membership card in order to really enjoy the fruits of a real democracy. Even when our football team , Beitar Binyamina played an Hapoel team [Hapoel = histadrut] it was taken for granted, that ”somehow”, the referee will not be as honest as could be expected to be. After all, it was a Beitar team, and to be associated with Beitar was to be defined as the ”other”, not one of ”us’, rather one of ”them”. We hear so much from many Israelis of Mizrachi origin that this is exactly what their parents and grandparents told them about the early years, and I can understand it so well. It was not only so many of the mizrachim, it was also people like us , from Nahalat Jabotinski and similar places, as well as many religious people. It was the late Menachem Begin with his genius political acumen who understood the meaning of all that, and the political conclusions to be drawn, and he managed to create the counter coalition of voters to the one which was the basis of Labor. This is the coalition which is still continuing to be a decisive socio-political force in Israel. Labor lost its aura of invincibility and legitimacy in the Yom Kippur war, but already before, after the Six Days war it lost its ideological advantage, because the results of the war gave a new lease of life , a new relevance to the idea of greater Israel which was the ideological backbone of the old, historic Herut party, the mother party of current Likud.

Labor therefore lost political relevance and this could be corrected had they managed to restore their lost position by succeeding with what they considered to be their renewed claim to fame-the peace process. The truth is, that here they also failed miserably. The only significant peace with Egypt is the one signed by Menachem Begin , whereas the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians have not led to the desired peace.Let alone the cureent process of peace/normalization treaties .The historian/biographer Dr. Avi Shilon devoted his latest book to the role of the failed peace process and the decline of the Left Wing in Israel. The hero of the book is Dr. Yossi Belin , a brilliant political thinker and operative, but the unfortunate person most associated with the Oslo process. It is perhaps symbolic, that Beilin ended up his political career as the chairman Of Meretz, whereas his son was a candidate in the current Labor leadership contest and was roundly defeated by Ms. Michaeli. So, Labor lost the battle over its main message, and failed to come up with a new message, as well as to attract a new base of voters. In recent years, the party focused its attention on the social issues of Israel, and growingly adopted the image of a Left Wing party, especially under the leadership of Ms. Yechimovitz and Amir Peretz. They did it while ignoring the fact, that the brand Left Wing has become so tainted in Israel of the last 2 decades. Even a short look at the new parties/lists which are mushrooming these days in Israel, shows how they all shy away from the definition of Left Wing , portraying themselves as Center or only under pressure, as Center- Left.

At this point, I turn again to the personal tone with which I started this article. I am not sad about the demise of the historic political rival, nor am I happy, and it is not because I choose to be in a good place in the middle. It is because of the fact, that the Jabotinski-Begin movement is also no more. The pictures of the two leaders are still hung in the Likud Central Committee meetings, the lip service to their legacy is being duly paid, but it is not the same. Current day Likud is somethin else, a topic to be left to another article, so the end of Labor is not THE final victory of the other side.

It is arguably the case, that it is the end of a major chapter in Zionist and Israeli political history, but we live in times where more political changes are about to unfold. Maybe not on 23 March, but they are in the pipeline and they can lead Likud to the same fate as Labor’s. There is already some writing on the wall.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina
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