Opinion: The Battle for Israel's Labor Party

published: 21.11.2013

Thursday's leadership primaries could determine Israel's political and diplomatic future

The Israel Labor Party played a crucial role in the establishment of the State of Israel. In the pre-State days it created the institutions that paved the way of the small Jewish community of then-Palestine to independence. It ruled the country, unchallenged, for three decades, shaping its ethos, its society and its policies. It was ousted from power in 1977 and its numbers have been gradually dwindling ever since.

Despite its declining influence, Thursday's primaries for leadership of the country's main opposition party could determine the political map of Israel. Moreover, its results may have a direct impact on the outcome of the peace talks with the Palestinians, currently underway.

Competing for the leadership are two members of the party's younger generation: the incumbent, Shelly Yachimovich, a journalist who made her debut in politics some eight years ago; and Isaac Herzog, a lawyer, the scion of a family with a rich tradition of service to the country: his late grandfather was the chief rabbi of Palestine and his late father was the president of the State of Israel. Herzog entered politics in 1999 as cabinet secretary and successfully held a number of posts in the executive branch since.

FacebookWhile the two broadly share an ideological platform, their views on what Labor stands for and what direction it should take could not be more different. This is not merely a matter of different interpretations of the doctrine of social democracy, but also a deep divergence regarding the line the party should take on issues of security and foreign relations.

Yachimovich describes herself as a social democrat, yet her ideas are far removed from the Scandinavian model: she favors organized labor, mainly the big trade unions, but her views do not include welfare services for all, a safety net or labor market flexibility. Herzog's views are defined by a greater degree of inclusiveness and thus are more relevant to current conditions. His brand of social democracy may be termed "constructive socialism," which believes in the connection between personal welfare, national economic growth and a market economy.

During her term at the helm of the party, Yachimovich has shunned debate on foreign affairs, security and the peace process with the Palestinians. She has been reluctant to meet with foreign leaders. Her economic inclinations have alienated big business, which had traditionally voted Labor. Her reluctance to deal with the security and defense issues vital to Israel's future in this region pushed many to abandon the party in favor of centrist newcomers on the Israeli political scene, such as the Yesh Atid and Hatnu'a parties.

Herzog is well versed in foreign affairs and offers an elaborate plan of action. According to the polls, the candidates are running neck and neck. The participation rate in the internal elections could therefore tip the balance. The results – which will become known Friday morning - could change the endgame.

Both candidates have made clear they will support a peace agreement with the Palestinians, should the prime minister achieve one. Yachimovich, for one, has declared that she will not join the government, but will provide Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a parliamentary safety net.

Herzog, on the other hand, may decide to join the governing coalition should one of the parties that opposes the creation of a Palestinian state decide to pull out as the result of an agreement, thereby guaranteeing the stability of the government and its capacity to act.

The political map in Israel is fluid. The youngsters who led the social protest two years ago and cast their votes for Yair Lapid's new Yesh Atid party, are deeply disappointed with his policies which they view as reneging on his promises to help the middle class. Their votes could go to Labor if they find there a moderate policy and a partner eager to understand and respond to their needs. The two other centrist parties, Kadimah and Hatnu'a, led by Justice Minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Tzipi Livni, seem to be on their last legs.

What Labor badly needs now is a credible leader, one who can turn the party into a real alternative to the current government, who can be trusted and can attract these potential voters.

Colette Avital is a former Israeli ambassador and former member of Knesset for the Labor Party.

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