ON SEPTEMBER 21, LABOR Knesset Member Shelly Yacimovich, in a second round of
primary elections, defeated her former mentor, MK Amir Peretz, by more than nine
percent of the votes cast.
She thus becomes the first woman to head the
Labor Party since Gold Meir in the 1970s and the second woman, alongside Kadima
Chair Tzipi Livni, now heading a major political party.
trajectory has been impressive.
Yacimovich, 51, a resident of Tel Aviv
and the mother of two, entered the political arena only six years ago. A former
journalist, she was well-known from her highly rated radio and Tv talk shows, in
which she focused on social issues and civil rights. She catapulted herself into
politics without any connections to the political or military establishments,
Israel’s most common training ground for would-be political leaders. In these
primaries, she managed to defeat two former party chairmen (Amir Peretz and
Amram Mitzna) and a well-regarded former cabinet minister (Yitzhak
She’s still a newbie. During her short time in politics, she has
never even chaired a significant parliamentary committee, let alone held an
executive position such as minister or even deputy minister. Yet she was
responsible for at least 36 socially oriented pieces of legislation, quite a
feat even for more experienced parliamentarians.
Even her opponents
acknowledge that she’s knowledgeable and well-versed on social issues. “Shelly’s
so smart that it may be a disadvantage,” says a parliamentary aide, who speaks
to The Report on condition of anonymity because she represents a different MK.
“She really understands the issues, so she doesn’t see things in simplistic,
black-and-white terms. But that can be annoying to other politicians who aren’t
as thorough. In the Knesset, we all joke that Shelly is one of the few MKs that
actually reads the hundreds of pages of the budget proposal – and probably the
only one who actually understands what she reads.”
THE PRIMARY CAMPAIGN
WAS drawn out and highly contentious, and the run-off between Yacimovich and
Peretz was nasty, even deteriorating once into a fist fight between their
supporters, while Yacimovich looked on (although she later denounced the
The situation of the Labor Party, reduced to only eight MKs in
the current Knesset, has been improving ever since former party chairman and
current defense minister Ehud Barak bolted from the party in January
2011. And while the tense primaries revealed the depth of the ongoing
internal conflicts within the party, the fact that Labor was able to present
four credible candidates for chairman – unlike any other party at this time –
has also encouraged support among voters.
And it is clear that Yacimovich
has brought in added value and just may be the right person at the right time to
reinvigorate the party.
Her campaigning methods were different than
anything the Labor Party had ever seen before. Unlike the established candidates, who relied on party mechanisms and
registrations, Yacimovich – whom almost everyone refers to as Shelly – made
extensive use of social media, encouraged small contributions, and activated
volunteers throughout the country.
“I haven’t been active in the Labor
Party for years,” Idit Ohayon, a 31-year-old teacher from Haifa, tells The
Report. “I was too disgusted – with Labor in particular and with politics in
general. But Shelly made me hopeful. She’s exciting, she’s gutsy. And
she’s a woman and she cares.”
Yacimovich had made a name for herself as a
social campaigner and one of the defining voices of social democracy long before
this summer’s protest movement. And so, although she kept her distance
from the tent camps – because, her supporters tell The Report, she didn’t want
to be seen as opportunistic – she is in a perfect position to become the
representative of the movement in the Knesset.
Polls published in the
media are showing that, were elections to take place today, Labor would become
the second-largest party, with upwards of 20 mandates in the 120-seat
Most of these votes, however, come from reshuffling the
political deck rather than any real new alignments. The center-right bloc, led
by Likud head and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and
including Yisrael Beiteinu as well as the ultra-Orthodox and other right- and
far right-wing parties, is not currently challenged by Labor’s revival and can
maintain a clear majority.
According to the polls, Labor will be pulling
votes from Kadima and from some of the left-wing parties, leaving the imbalance
between the center-right and center-left blocs fairly stable.
for the short-term, Yacimovich’s political strategy seems
well-defined. She has given no press interviews – and declined, through
her spokespersons, to be interviewed by The Report – preferring to issue sharply
worded press statements. She is likely to focus almost solely on social
issues and to remain fairly mum on diplomatic issues and the conflict with the
To date, her only statements on the conflict to the media
were in an extensive interview, in mid-summer, to the weekend magazine of the
left-wing “Haaretz” daily, in which she was quoted as saying that she “does not
see the settlement project as a sin and a crime.” This comment drew fire from
many leftists, including in the Labor Party, who accused her of playing to the
right. But, in the absence of other statements, it also helped her position
herself as a pragmatic and inclusive politician.
Yacimovich, says a
source close to her, learned her lessons from Peretz’s failures. Although
in the 2006 elections, Peretz ran on a social platform, he took the position of
defense minister in Ehud Barak’s government. His supporters felt betrayed, his
term is widely regarded to have been an abysmal failure and he was severely
criticized by the Winograd Commission that investigated the Second Lebanon
“Shelly’s ambitious, and she wants to be prime minister,” says the
source. “But she knows it’s not the time. So she doesn’t have to make statements
on everything. She’ll firm up her position as head of the socialdemocratic camp,
as someone who presents a new vision for Israeli society. There are plenty of
other members of the party who’ll be speaking out on the diplomatic
issues. She doesn’t have to.”
On social issues, she can be
expected to go after Livni, whom she regards as a neoliberal capitalist, as well
as Netanyahu. And it is clear that Netanyahu, in particular, is vulnerable,
since the social protests of the summer may force him to forgo some of his most
cherished economic policies.
the Trajtenberg Committee investigating the social protests submitted its
preliminary report, Yacimovich, at a meeting of the Labor Party, pointedly
declared that the report was “not only not a cure for the ills of Israeli
society – but part of the same illness… taken from the Netanyahu school of
Yachimovich won the primaries during the same week as three
men made it to the finals in the “Master Chef” television competition. So at
least for a week or two, local feminists could gloat that, finally, women –
Yacimovich in Labor and Livni in Kadima – were in politics while the men were
doing time in the kitchen.
Indeed, much is being made of the fact that
not only are two women heading major political parties, they may be facing off
and competing against each other for votes.
But as Kadima loses public
support, competition against Livni within her own party is growing. Nor is it
clear that these two women represent a definitive crack in Israel’s political
glass ceiling. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international
organization of parliaments, Israel ranks far below other Western countries in
terms of women’s participation in politics; only 23 out of 120 Knesset members
are women, or 19.2 percent. While this percentage has fluctuated over the years,
it has never been higher than 20 percent.
Furthermore, women are
distinctly absent in other political spheres, including local and municipal
governments, political party offices, and the military, which remain important
staging grounds for political careers.
Yet it is likely, says Prof. Hanna
Herzog of Tel Aviv University, that the strong visibility and extensive
publicity that Yacimovich and Livni receive may contribute to subtle changes in
the perception of women’s roles and to a breakdown of gender
As part of her social justice platform, Yacimovich has
strongly supported classic feminist issues, such as concern over violence
against women, child care allotments, and subsidies for single-parent families.
But for anyone who believes that women are “inherently more peaceful,”
Yacimovich’s style – abrasive, curt and arrogant, with little patience for
social subtleties – will soon convince them otherwise.
sling mud with the best of them and is known as a soloist rather than a
team player. Since both men and women ﬁnd it difﬁcult to work with her,
remains unclear to what extent she will be able to mentor young female –
male, for that matter – protégés.
It is unlikely that the fact that
Yacimovich is a woman played a critical role in her success. Unlike other
Western countries, Israeli voting trends have never revealed a gendered voting
pattern, or what is commonly referred to as a “gender gap.” But this, says
Herzog, may be changing. “In the 2009 elections,” she tells The Report, “the
attempt by some of the parties to mount a negative campaign against Tzipi Livni,
focusing on the fact that she is a woman, backﬁred. In fact, it heightened
women’s awareness of gender issues. When women are undecided about candidates,
the gender factor can make a decisive difference regarding whom they’ll vote
And since women make up more than half of the self-deﬁned undecided
voters, that could be a critical factor.
Yet, in many ways, Yacimovich is
somewhat of a post-feminist, similar to the ways in which US President Barack
Obama has positioned himself as somewhat of a postracial politician. That is,
while recognizing gender inequities, she is likely to move beyond a liberal
feminist platform to more inclusive policies and to emphasize, for example,
mainstreaming rather than afﬁrmative action.
THE UPCOMING KNESSET TERM is
expected to be particularly difﬁcult for Netanyahu, who will be facing a host of
challenges: domestic social unrest, regional instability, growing diplomatic
isolation, and the difﬁculties with Egypt, Turkey and possibly Jordan, to name a
few. He also faces challenges from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who may
be pushing for early elections – and the impending comptroller’s report on the
Carmel forest ﬁres of last year, which is expected to be devastatingly
Yacimovich can be expected to be an articulate and effective
But ﬁrst, she will have to deal with the opposition
within her own party. The Labor party has already ﬁnished off seven chairmen in
10 years, and most of them left bruised and humiliated.
will have to overcome the lingering effects of the primaries. It took nearly two
full weeks for Yacimovich and Peretz to even arrange a meeting, and while they
have both publicly stated that they will work together, the enmity between them
was visible even in their body language as they stood together at the annual
Labor Party Rosh Hashana toast.
At that event, Yitzhak Herzog announced
that he was “throwing all the emotions into the sea. We want to work together
and show that even the Labor party can work together.”
Yacimovich will not only need the support from Peretz, who after all did receive
45 percent of the vote, but also from Herzog, who will probably emphasize
diplomatic and international issues and act as a sort of “shadow” foreign
minister for the Labor Party.
Above all, Yacimovich will have to try to
change what is popularly referred to as the “Labor Party’s DNA.” Says the aide
who asked not to be named, “The members of the Labor Party have a sort of
perverse obsession to stab each other in the back. It’s almost like they can’t
But Labor MK Daniel Ben-Simon hopes that things will be
different from now on. “I really thought the party might die,” he
“Now I’m more optimistic. I didn’t support Shelly, but I see the
potential she is bringing us. We will work together, we’ll accept her
leadership, and we’ll succeed.”
Speaking to the crowd at the toast, even
Peretz was hopeful. “More things unite us than separate us,” he declared. “It is
true that an election campaign can leave scars, but working together is a must.
Now the real rival is the Likud and Netanyahu.”