Israel Pulse

Israel's Labor Party wants power

Article Summary
Isaac Herzog won the battle for Labor Party chairman because he represents the opposite image and a more flexible agenda than that of outgoing Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich.

The Labor Party established the state of Israel. Its leaders were the ''founding fathers'' of the young state, the central pillars of the Zionist movement. The Israeli right at that time was remote, negligible, marginal in the annals of Israel’s early years.

The Labor Party held the reins of power in the young state for the first 29 years of its existence, until the historic 1977 upset by late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. For three decades it had seemed that Israel belonged to the Labor Party, was registered as its property, was completely identified with it. Late Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, our George Washington, was its first leader. He was followed by prime ministers Moshe Sharet, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. That was a generation of giants. A proud testament, alive and kicking, can still be found in the president’s residence in Jerusalem in the indefatigable figure of 90-year-old Shimon Peres.

Since the Begin upset and up until this very day, for 36 years, Labor only returned to power twice, for brief periods: Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 1999 (whose coalition was deposed from power after less than two years). Shimon Peres got to serve as prime minister in the 1980s, in the famous rotation government (two years for him and two for Likud’s late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir).

Other than that, 29 of the 36 years that have gone by since 1977 belong to the Israeli right: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert (who came from the ranks of the right but veered to the left) and, once again, Netanyahu. The right, by the way, never overthrew its own leaders. Begin ruled until he gave up and withdrew, Shamir ruled until he lost the elections to Rabin, Sharon held on to power until he collapsed with a stroke, Netanyahu led the Likud until he lost in the 1999 elections and withdrew, only to come back and head the party in 2009 and until today. The Likud respects its leaders, gives them breathing space, follows them (even while making their lives a misery), but doesn’t remove them from power. Likud leaders leave under their own steam. 

The Labor Party, on the other hand, eats its leaders alive. Pay attention to the list of Labor leaders since the 1995 Rabin assassination: Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Avraham Burg (who only held the title for one day), Binyamin "Fouad" Ben-Eliezer, Amram Mitzna, Amir Peretz, Ehud Barak once again, Shelly Yachimovich and, since Friday morning (Nov. 22), Isaac "Buji" Herzog. All these Labor leaders (except Herzog, who has just been elected), were deposed by their party after one term or forced to resign (Barak). In the past five years, Labor has had four chairpersons (Peretz, Barak, Yachimovich and Herzog). The further it gets from power, the more it spins out of control, the more it mistrusts its leaders and its estrangement from relevant power centers within the Israeli public is accelerated.    

For the past two years the party has been led by Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, a sharp, opinionated journalist, a flaming socialist, a strong woman who took over the veteran party with a fair degree of aggressiveness and tried to transplant new DNA into its aging body. The surgery resulted in strange and unfamiliar behavior: no crawling into any and every government, no addiction to budget spigots, no toeing the line of the capitalistic financial establishment, but rather, creating an alternative, a new spirit, a young party, rebellious, connected to the geographic and social periphery, confrontational.  

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered Yachimovich the treasury after the January elections, a tempting portfolio of which she could only have dreamt in her wildest dreams, she refused. I will not join the capitalist Netanyahu government, she said, and led her party to the benches of the opposition. Genetically, Labor doesn’t like opposition. The party’s historic DNA is linked to power, any power whatsoever. 

On Friday morning, it transpired that the surgery to provide Labor with a new personality had failed. Isaac Herzog beat Yachimovich against all odds, and with a tremendous margin. The Labor Party wants to be in power. Yachimovich had a glass ceiling (she got 15 seats in the Knesset in the January elections, not such a bad achievement compared with the one of Ehud Barak, but not enough to hand her the reins of power). It was clear that her intense socialist agenda would prevent Labor from once again becoming a ruling party. There aren’t enough socialists in Israel at this stage. Yachimovich was deposed. The successive chain of deposed party leaders wasn’t broken. Tradition lives on.

Herzog is a relatively young politician, but experienced and accomplished. His lineage is impeccable. If there’s such a thing as Israeli nobility, Herzog could be its symbol: his father, Chaim Herzog, was an army general, became the national face of the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War and served as the country’s sixth president. Isaac Herzog’s grandfather was Israel’s chief rabbi. He held several ministerial portfolios and was cabinet secretary during Ehud Barak’s short-lived term (1999-2001), came back as a member of Knesset, ran against Yachimovich in the previous primaries and lost.

Herzog, who looks like an adolescent and enjoys endless reserves of energy, is a diehard. He ran against Yachimovich this time, too, although his prospects didn’t seem good and he knew that another defeat would turn him into a modern-day version of Shimon Peres, the ultimate loser of Israeli politics.

Perhaps he believed that like Peres, he would lose again and again until winning the really decisive battle. This battle occurred sooner than we anticipated, this week. From now on, Herzog is head of the opposition in Israel, but what’s more important: the Labor Party has been restored to its previous incarnation — a possible platform for a Netanyahu coalition, if and when Bibi (Netanyahu) decides he truly wants to make a diplomatic move.

Herzog is a political dove, a consistent supporter of negotiations with the Palestinians, of painful territorial compromises, of the Clinton parameters and perhaps even of the Olmert proposal. He is connected to the US establishment, well connected in Europe and has ties to quite a few personalities in the Arab world. He is friendly, incredibly likeable, pleasant and even-tempered.

He has two main problems: his image as someone who will crawl into government at any price, and a certain lack of leadership. The fight with Yachimovich was actually a fight between someone whom nobody notices when he walks into a room and someone who makes most people angry when she walks into a room. On Friday morning, Herzog walked into the room and sat on the biggest chair. This time, at least, we all noticed.

Found in: shelly yachimovich, left wing, labor party, israeli politics, israeli knesset, israel elections, history

Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel. On Twitter: @BenCaspit


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