Political parties in Israel are dynamic – changing names, splitting apart, joining together and shifting their platforms as time goes by. The latest instance of this phenomenon, the Labor party splitting in two, comes 43 years after three socialist labor Zionist parties joined together to create the Labor Party. On January 21, 1968, Mapai, Labor Unity (Ahdut Haavoda) and Rafi (Israel Workers List) united to form the largest political party in Israel’s history.
The Labor Party traces its history back to the Mapai and Labor Unity
parties, which have their own history going back to the beginning of the
20th century. Originally founded on principles of socialism, Marxism
and Zionism, the movement is responsible for several state institutions
that continue to play extremely influential roles in the state of Israel
and its society to this day.
From the early 1900s, Mapai played one of the most instrumental roles in
building the future state of Israel. The Hagana and Palmah, military
organizations organized under the umbrella of Mapai to protect Jewish
settlers in British Mandate Palestine, later became the Israeli Defense
Forces. The Histadrut (General Federation of Laborers in the Land of
Israel) was not created by the Mapai party but its secretary starting in
1921, David Ben-Gurion, would soon closely align it with the party. The
Histadrut was for many years one of the most powerful institutions in
Israel. Additionally, Labor Unity and Mapai were both very influential
in the state’s early kibbutz movements, which was one of the foundations
of Labor Zionism and the building of the state.
Also synonymous with the building of the state of Israel is David
Ben-Gurion. The Mapai party’s leader from the pre-state era until the
mid-1960s, Ben-Gurion embodied the state-building process. He served as
head of Mapai, the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency. This role as leader
of so many state-building institutions and efforts gave his Mapai party
the popular support it needed to become the state’s dominant political
force for nearly thirty years.
Over a decade after Ben-Gurion first stepped down from the Mapai
leadership, the party joined an alliance with the ideologically similar
Labor Unity party. The move was intended to consolidate support
following Ben-Gurion’s split from the party. Three years later,
following the Six Day War, the two aligned parties consolidated once
again with the party Ben-Gurion had started, Rafi, to form the modern
Labor Party (called Labor Alliance at the time).
With its 54 mandates, the newly formed Labor party became the largest in
Knesset history. The consolidated Labor-Zionist party would continue
Mapai’s uninterrupted rule for another nine years until Likud under
Menachem Begin won elections for Israel’s ninth Knesset, relinquishing
only 32 mandates to Labor. Since that defeat, the Labor party has never
led the government for more than four years at a time.
The party has seen several ideological and political shifts since its
days as Mapai. Large swaths of Israel’s leaders have risen through the
party’s ranks. Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and
Shimon Peres all served as Mapai or Labor prime ministers, each slightly
shifting the direction of the party and the country. While the earlier
leaders are oftentimes remembered for the wars fought under their
command, later leaders like Rabin and Peres are more closely associated
with peace processes and many analysts attribute the woes of the Labor
Party in the last fifteen years to the failure of those attempts at
peace making. The last Labor government was headed by Ehud Barak, which
saw the last of the Labor-led peace attempts fail at Camp David in 2000.
The Labor party and its predecessors have been a major force in the
history of the State of Israel. It has also seen its share of splits,
unifications, realignments, rises and falls through its history that
out-dates the state itself. From its role in building the IDF, to the
Kibbutz Movement and the leaders it brought the country, it has been a
constant presence in an Israeli political system that sees political
parties appear and disappear with each new election cycle. Its latest
split this week brought the party to its all-time smallest
representation in the Knesset. While the latest blow to Labor may spell
uncertainty for the country’s oldest political party, it will always
hold a significant historical role that is closely aligned with the
history of Israel.