THE Labour Party and political system were left in shock Monday as Defence Minister Ehud Barak announced Monday that he was resigning from the Labour Party together with four of the faction’s members.
Some see the move as the end of the party that was for generations, the ruling party in Israel, one that actually founded the State. In a talk with Ynet, historians of Israeli politics explain what and who brought about the rise and fall of the Labour Party.
Barak is really not the only responsible party.
“Mapai, which would one day become the Labour Party, was the dominant party in the days of the British mandate and the days before the establishment of the State Israel, from the time of David Ben-Gurion’s victory over Jabotinsky in 1938 in the elections at the 18th congress,” Professor Yechiam Weitz, an expert on Israeli politics at Haifa University recalls.
“Two aspects made it the dominant party: Its pragmatism which placed it at the centre of the political dialogue and the party’s ability to absorb people from both the working and middle classes.”
In the professor’s opinion, the pragmatic outlook “was expressed in their ability to continue a dialogue in the face of the changing reality. This was led by Ben-Gurion who until the 1966 Lavon affair changed the party’s stance time and again, adapting it to the reality shifts. It started with the 1946 partition plan and continued in his ability to change his stance within 24 hours on the Sinai withdrawal issue.”
In Professor Weitz’s opinion, Today’s Labour Party has lost that ability completely – which is why it has failed to get back its political power and continues on its ongoing decline.
“It has become a flaccid organ that fails to function and reach a place of true power, it’s like someone who passes on the main course and is satisfied with the leftovers.” Historian Professor Yossi Goldstein agrees that if not for Ben-Gurion’s ability to see one step ahead of the ever changing reality, the Labour Party’s decline would have begun a long time ago.
“From the day Ben-Gurion first won the elections, his greatness was in his ability to analyze the reality,” he states, “he also represented only a small sector in society, but he knew how to make the reality work for him, his successors, Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol also had that talent.”
Professor Goldstein mentions the Yitzhak Rabin’s 1992 election win and believes that it stemmed from Rabin’s correct understanding of the reality at the time.
“He got rid of the party’s red tones because he understood that it was holding them back. He later took a dovish stand in spite of being hawkish himself and ascribed himself with the pragmatic-hawkish stance of someone willing to give back territories.”
The current Labour Party division is not the party’s first.
“The Labour Party had divisions as early as 1944, when Tabenkin’s faction left to become Ahdut HaAvoda,” said Weitz noting that the party had already begun to lose major power in the 60s.
“The most significant split occurred in 1965 when Ben-Gurion left Mapai and established the Rafi party. In spite of the respect the public had for him that move put the nail in Ben-Gurion’s political coffin. At the time he preferred to follow his urges which had one thing in mind – destroy Eshkol politically. Eventually Ben-Gurion failed and his move led to his political downfall.”
Professor Goldstein adds that the 80s saw a certain change, with the settlement debate. The Alignment party, which was considered more dovish than the Likud under Shamir’s leadership, received support from sectors in society that identified with the dovish view.
“It was the only thing that kept the party going – that inertia which sharpened in Rabin’s second cadence – Rabin who represented a political dovish perception and went on to win in spite of the fact that he didn’t represent a big enough sector in society.”
In addition to Barak, Professor Goldstein believes that the person responsible for the Labour’s Party current situation is Shimon Peres who “failed to look into the future. The Labour Party had historical rights and an outstanding leader at the helm (Ben-Gurion) and yet it hasn’t represented a central sector of Israel’s society for years.”
He adds: “Mapai and the Labour Party which was its successor represented a sector that was suitable to the 20s and 30s of the twentieth century – famers and Labourers. And yet Israeli society was always composed of a middle class. From the 70s the party was being carried on the wings of change leaving the memories of past kindnesses and Ben-Gurion’s charisma, and that of his successors – Meir, Eshkol and even Rabin during his second term, behind.”
Professor Weitz also points a finger in Peres’ direction. “There are those who would put the blame on Amir Peretz for his decision to take the Defense portfolio in Olmert’s government instead of choosing a more social portfolio, but that wouldn’t be fair, that is Shimon Peres’ political heritage.”
He believes that Peres was the one who determines that the Labour Party must always be in power.
“He became a political joke because he was willing to accept any insult in order to be part of the government. Barak’s decision two years ago to join the Netanyahu government was a death blow to the party, but he wasn’t alone in making the decision, the fact is, a majority of party members made that decision. Today it is clear that Tzipi Livni was right, politically speaking – you should never become a government third wheel.”
As for resigning from the party, Goldstein believes that Barak’s move was a wise one: “The segment in society and the values that the Labour Party represents are that of a party with a socio-economical outlook represented by people like Shelly Yachimovich, a social-democratic party with a number of mandates that suits its representation in Israeli society.
“Which is why both Barak and Peres did right when they tried to be part of the coalition at any price, they knew that otherwise the party would be wiped out. The Labour Party isn’t a contender for power because it doesn’t represent a large enough sector of Israeli society and it has no chance of revival in the opposition.”
And what of the future? Goldstein is pessimistic. “I’m no prophet, but in today’s political situation I fail to see the possibility of a Labour Party revival.” Since it joined the political map, he explains, Kadima took most of the Labour Party’s voters.
“Kadima shares the Labour Party’s ideals in both the political and social front, it appeals to a much larger sector in Israeli society – there is simply no room for the Labour Party. Goldstein adds that “even the power of inertia that carried the Labour Party through to this day has run out. A charismatic leader, or someone with renewed drive like Amram Mitzna could very well save the party, but I find it hard to believe that it will ever be able to reproduce its glory days.”
Professor Weitz shares the pessimistic view. “In 2004 Labour joined the Sharon government, and Shimon Peres became vice prime minister. It was a distinguished role, but lacking in substance and Peres took it so that he would be able to be part of the government. Those are the political genes that Peres left for the Labour Party. You can absorb all the shame – as long as you stay in government.”