Politics: Shelly Yacimovich’s serendipity

Labor Party leadership candidate and former radio and TV broadcaster has emerged as one of the big winners from the social protests.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
August 12, 2011 16:37
Shelly Yacimovich

Shelly Yacimovich 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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The late Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau was known for saying that “the essential ingredient of politics is timing.”

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose Israel Beiteinu won 15 seats during an election that, conveniently for the party, was conducted during a war, is proof that Trudeau’s quote applies in Israel as well.

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Labor Party leadership candidate Shelly Yacimovich lacks the political experience of rival candidates Isaac Herzog and Amir Peretz. She doesn’t have candidate Amram Mitzna’s military career and success running two cities on her resume. And she certainly doesn’t have candidate Erel Margalit’s unlimited budget.

But that essential ingredient? Yeah, that she definitely has.

Yacimovich didn’t organize the street protests that began on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard last month. And her campaign website is exaggerating when it claims that she predicted the protests in a speech at Tel Aviv University three months ago.

Nevertheless, she stands to gain more than any other politician from the protests when Labor goes to the polls to elect a new leader, presumably on September 12, unless the primary gets delayed.



She has made a point of not visiting any of the protest sites, while all four of the other candidates have spent a lot of time there. Margalit even spent large sums on decorating a white van with slogans and on a separate PR team from his normal campaign spokesman to accompany his tour of tents across the country.

Yacimovich’s spokeswoman said her boss has stayed away from the tents because she believes that their authenticity is their strength and she doesn’t want to cause harm – but also, she said, because she doesn’t need to.

The leaders of the tent protests sound exactly like Yacimovich has sounded for years. They are trumpeting issues on which she stubbornly focused when other MKs and members of the media (including this one) repeatedly told her that no one was listening and that she really needed to be talking about war and peace.

“What’s been happening over the past few weeks makes me so happy,” she said at a parlor meeting Wednesday night at the stately home of campaign volunteer Hedda Amir in Jerusalem’s German Colony. “It almost makes me cry. The issues they have brought to the forefront – calling for a welfare state and against privatization – are issues that were always important to the public but were not advanced by the press and politicians, who didn’t care about such things. It’s easier for politicians to just say they support ‘two states for two peoples’ and go to sleep than to really go to work.”

Yacimovich described at the meeting how Labor has had “really good luck” in finding itself in the right place at the right time.

“The arrows are pointed at Netanyahu, and Kadima, the main opposition party, hasn’t gained, because the public isn’t stupid, and they realize that Kadima is just as capitalist, Republican and Thatcherist as Likud,” she said. “We are the alternative, because our agenda is social-democratic. We don’t need to spin anything. This agenda is us.”

She asserted that “when I lead Labor, this will happen. The social-democratic agenda of our party will be clear, and we will return to the center-stage of Israeli politics. This is a great opportunity to return to Israeli society just by being ourselves, and I am sure we will.”

Yacimovich did not mention any of the other candidates the entire evening. But one point she made about the housing protests could be seen as an allegory for her race against Peretz, her one-time political mentor and ally and currently her main competitor and fierce rival.

“Middle-class people have led all the best revolutions,” she said. “That’s true historically. The poor are too busy struggling to survive. The middle class here has woken up, and that’s a very good thing.”

Peretz is perceived as a leader not of the middle class but of the poor underclass, the workers, development towns, and the underprivileged inner cities. While the protest movement is making an effort to reach out to those people this weekend, that’s not what the demonstrations have been about until now.

Herzog can list dozens of things he did to help the middle class as welfare and social services minister, but he has a disadvantage of being seen as an establishment candidate at a time when hundreds of thousands have protested against the establishment.

Mitzna, at 66, is too old to relate to many protesters, and he was heckled when he visited a tent. And while Margalit’s nonprofits have helped a lot of the very people protesting today, he has a disturbing habit of looking above people and not at them when he is supposed to be speaking to them, and that doesn’t help in the tents.

Yacimovich is in a much better position to speak to the middle class than any of her rivals. The 51-year old MK is a single mother who lives in south Tel Aviv with her 17-year old son and 12-year-old daughter.

As a reporter and a radio and television broadcaster before entering politics, her English website says that she “promoted topics she regarded [as] important, without portraying a façade of objectivity.”

She boasts on the site that she “brought [a] feminist and social agenda to prime time radio” and “gave a stable platform for the women of [the] Four Mothers movement, until the withdrawal of the IDF from Lebanon.”

She officially entered politics in November 2005 at Peretz’s behest, and five months later entered the Knesset, where she has focused on socioeconomic issues. She has passed 31 laws, including legislation that extended maternity leave, required employers to let their employees sit down while they work, and granted returnees to the country health insurance upon arrival.

On diplomatic issues, she says she supports former US president Bill Clinton’s parameters for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and she is in favor of legislation to already start compensating residents of isolated settlements who move within the Green Line. But she refuses on principle to elaborate too much on diplomatic issues.

“We always said we would first make peace and then deal with social issues, so now we don’t have peace, and we haven’t dealt with social issues,” she complained at the Jerusalem parlor meeting.

Surprisingly, Yacimovich was not asked a single question on diplomatic issues at the event. The toughest question for her seemed to be one on how Labor could overcome its ego wars. She answered with a quote that was less pleasant about politics than Trudeau’s.

“Uniting the party will not be easy at all,” she said. “[Former foreign minister] Shlomo Ben-Ami said the most important trait for politicians is the ability to suffer. I believe that with my ability to suffer, I can build a worthy party.”

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