The Belabored Party

My wife occasionally mentions a repeated gag on the fake news broadcast on Saturday Night Live in the 70s. After other mangled news, the announcer would say, “And Franco is still dying.” Given what he could expect in the next world, it’s no wonder he was slow about moving there.

But the record for slow political deaths surely belongs to Israel’s Labor Party. Labor was born in 1968 as a coalition of three Labor Zionist parties, and has been engaged in expiring slowly ever since. The central component of the party was Mapai, which for practical purposes founded the State of Israel. In the brutal light of history, one can see that Mapai began dying as soon as the state was born. As a party aimed achieving national independence, it became obsolete at that moment.

At times Mapai/Labor has looked for a new purpose, but without much enthusiasm or stick-to-itness. Instead, it has mostly stuck to guarding the privileges of the class that created the state, and of the organizations that had acquired vested political interests in the process of national liberation, such as the kibbutz movements. But the kibbutzim are privatizing into neighborhoods. Most of the secular, Ashkenazi Jews whose parents or grandparents believed in Labor Zionism are middle class Israelis who know as little about socialism as they know about Shinto.

When the party chose Ehud Barak to lead it again, it may have chosen the man who will put it securely in history books, to be misexplained by Israeli eighth graders, the local equivalent of the Whigs in the United States.

The latest poll in Ha’aretz showed that Labor under Barak will get 12-13 Knesset seats in the next election, about two-thirds of its dismal showing in the last couple of elections. This may actually be an extremely optimistic poll, though. At the moment, the only possible reason for voting Labor is that one has been doing so for so many years that one cannot break the habit, or has forgotten that voting is intended to influence policy, not just express tribal loyalties.

As Haim has pointed out, Barak has said virtually nothing about the major issues facing the country since being rechosen as Labor leader. But what could he say? For a few years, as it recovered from its post-Six-Day War hawkishness, Labor was the ostensible choice of wishy-washy doves. Back in 1997, Barak was chosen as party leader the first time on the thesis that he’d complete Yitzhak Rabin’s work of making peace with the Palestinians. He not only failed. He created a narrative for his failure that covered up his manifest inability to negotiate by claiming that peace with the Palestinians was virtually unachievable. As much as anyone can figure out, Barak is now to the right of Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni – no great doves themselves. But if one wants to vote to the right of Kadima, there are several other parties there, including the one led by Bibi Netanyahu, he of the fear-mongering and the Friedmanist economics. If one wants wishy-washy attempts at peace to go with Friedmanism, one can vote for Kadima. The question is not why Labor only gets 12 seats in the poll, but why the polls assign it that many. It’s still dying, but its misery may soon end.

Addendum: I began writing the post above at the airport on my way to South Africa. Since my plane actually left early, I didn’t have time to include one more element. So here’s the rest from Jo’burg airport.

Once upon a time, Labor also stood for socialism, or social democracy. Mapai built a socialist state before it had a state – health care for the workers, unions, employment bureaus – and completed the process soon after independence. Anyone – meaning any American troglodyte –  who wants to laugh at the word  “socialism” should talk an American-born Israeli who has faced a major medical crisis in Israel. In my case, the cost of my wife’s emergency C-section, her extended hospital stay, and my son’s 35 days in neo-natal intensive care was precisely zero. In the US, it would have shot through a standard pregnancy policy and cost us the house.

But Labor completed its transition to fundamentalist Friedmanism in the 1980s under Shimon Peres (that name again). The working class channels its justifiable economic resentments into nationalist fervor and nostalgia for Menachem Begin’s economic populism, which gave working people their own cars even if it bankrupted the country.

In 2006, in a brief attempt at rising from clinical death, Labor chose social democrat and union leader Amir Peretz as its leader. Peretz, it would appear, managed to pry some votes away from the Likud in poor towns where people remembered Bibi’s assault on the poor when he served as finance minister. That injection balanced out the party’s slow hemorrhage of votes and the tribal refusal of some Ashkenazim to vote for a Moroccan-born candidate.

Then Peretz sold out. Rather than insist on the Finance Ministry, he gave into the spartan ethic (established by Labor from the 60s onward) that only generals can be national leaders. To fill in his qualifications for prime minister, he accepted the defense portfolio and abandoned economic issues. The generals steered him and Ehud Olmert into the disaster of Lebanon. Social democracy as a limb of Labor ideology suffered permanent gangrene. The party now stands for nothing. Eventually, “nothing” will also be  its  total on election day.  In the meantime, Labor is  still dying.

5 thoughts on “The Belabored Party”

  1. I basically agree with your analysis, but it is important to remember the problem is not just with the Labor Party, the problem is that party political life in Israel is dead. I recall when I made aliyah in the 1980’s that people were very excited about election campaigns, many people put stickers on their cars, posters in their windows and volunteered to work in the election campaigns. What has changed, especially since the 1999 elections which Barak won, was everyone coming to the realization that it really makes no difference who you vote for, the parties and candidates feel no obligation to carry out the promises they make and they feel no responsibility to the voters, or even the active members of the party.
    Barak, in the 1999 election campaign promised once and for all to end the sweeping exemption from military conscription that the Haredim enjoy and he also said he would work to end the suffering of the poor (the old lady stuck in the corridor of the hospital) by carrying out a “social policy”. As soon as he took office, he dropped these promises and spent his time trying to get Papa Assad to agree to take the Golan Heights and to give Judea/Samaria/Gaza and Jerusalem to Arafat. He failed in these goals. Thus, nothing was left of his promises or platform and he was decisively defeated by Sharon in 2001. In the 2003 elections, Labor’s Amram Mitzna proposed destroying Gush Katif. Sharon and the Likud vehemently rejected this, saying “Netzarim is no different than Tel Aviv”. Upon winning the election, he changed his mind and proposed carrying out a bigger destruction of Jewish settlements, not only in Gaza but also in Samaria. 2/3 of the Likud Knesset members supported him. In order to quiet unhappy party members, he agreed to a referendum of Likud Party members. He and his party members, including that “woman of integrity” Tzippi Livni swore they would honor the results. When Sharon lost, he announced he “made a mistake” in calling the referendum and that he would destroy Gush Katif anyway. 2/3 of the Knesset members, all of whom swore they would uphold the referendum results backed Sharon, including Netanyahu, Steve Shalom and Limor Livnat. This shows you what these people think of the importance of their promises and their loyalty to the members of their own party.

    In 2006, Amir Peretz took control of the Labor Party (Peres’ brother compared it to Franco conquering Spain) and again promised a “social platform” and that he would insist on a cabinet portfolio like the Treasury in order to carry out this platform. Olmert promised to destroy the Jewish settlements outside the security fence. After the election, Peretz chucked his promise to carry out a “social platform” for the poor and took the Defense Ministry, leading to the disastrous Lebanon II War. Olmert dropped his promise to destroy Jewish settlements. The surpise Pensioners Party forgot about its promises to the pensioners and split as well, with 3 of the 7 MK’s going to Gayadamak.

    Thus, the conclusion one reaches, is as I said, it makes no difference who you vote for. Labor, Kadima and Likud all have the same policy towards the Palestinians, “reaching an agreemement” with them, withdrawing to the security fence, if not further, talks with Syria, letting Washington set Israeli defense policy, etc.
    In the past, Israeli voter turnout was over 80%, last time it was around 60% and next time I predict it will drop to 50%. I have no plans to vote. People always say “vote for the least bad party”. This is what I did when I foolishly believed Sharon’s promise not to destroy Gush Katif. I, as a “right-winger” view the Likud as a party of corrupt, spineless, deceitful politicians and I don’t want them in power. All they would do in power is give away more than the Left, so for me, the “least bad” alternative is a weak, ineffectual Leftist gov’t, like we have at the moment. I will not vote for the Left because I view that as immoral, so I will sit at home and hope they win without my support. Interesting your fellow “progressive” blogger, “Jerry Haber” (MagnesZionist) also came to the same conclusion as I from the opposite direction. He has voted for MERETZ and HADASH in the past, so he figures, like I do, that Netanyahu will buckle under the pressure and knock down Jewish settlements in Judea/Samaria so he has come to the conclustion that having Netanyahu in is best for the Left. I view having the Left in as best for supporters of the Right. Strange world!

  2. I also agree with Ben-David; however, Labor might still have a following if it had not become the party of Ashkenazi racism. Labor’s ruling kibbutznik elite (of mostly European origin) was perceived as the party who ignored non-Ashkenazi Jews, steered their kids into vocational schools instead of college, shoved them into poor and dilapidated neighborhoods, and actually held a debate on whether or not Moroccan Jews were “really Jewish.” Remember the Black Panthers? Shas (oy!) stepped in and presented themselves as the “traditional” and not-so-radical answer to the needs of the Sephardi and Mitzrachi poor and working poor. What should have been Labor’s natural base, the working class, defected to a more traditionalist “Sephardic” party which appeared to listen to their complaints and promised to address “Sephardic” issues. Since Shas is also a religious junta and talks like everyone’s Mitzrachi grandfather, and handed out money and perks to poor people and communities, Labor lost and Shas gained.

  3. At a high level, I have no real argument with Gershom’s analysis of the downward spiral of the former Social Democratic entity called the Israeli Labor Party. Barak’s narrow victory over Ami Ayalon in the last Labor leadership contest certainly adds to this picture. Indeed, when considering the current Israeli-Palestinian status, Tzippi Livni looks like a better horse to ride.

    However, in my opinion this does not mean that social democratic Israeli voters should start registering for membership in Kadima. When looking at the respective Knesset factions and drillng down into their parliamentary and public work, you will find that Labor has some people who are trying to make a difference in the life of the Israeli people. Examples include Michael Melchior (both as Education Committee chair and his work on religious issues), Ami Ayalon (Mifkad Haleumi), Ophir Pines-Paz (environmental issues and civil rights), Shelly Yacimovich (women’s rights, foreign workers), and Colette Avital (Geneva). In addition, this government has raised spending on education, the first to do so since Rabin’s government. Many would suggest that is due to Labor’s influence in the government, even if it is only baby steps in repairing the damage done by previous governments.

    I do not say all of this to excuse Barak but rather to suggest that there still might a “lesser of two evils” or “many evils” playing out. Isn’t that usually the case when you play the game of politics?

  4. The joke actually was “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” and it was reference to Franco’s very long time dying. As far as the “record for slow political deaths” goes, the Israeli Labour Party will have a long way to go to beat the British Liberals, who have been dying for over 80 years now.

  5. Gershom: This is an exceptionally witty, well-written piece. Your sense of humor is a great one and I hope you never lose it. It’s kind of sad that a party that had a heart, if nothing else, should be in a terminal condition, which, as you point out, it has been in even longer, much longer, than Sharon.

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