Politics: Yacimovich’s Labor is just beginning

After beating out Amir Peretz, the party’s new leader knows she has a long road in front of her to become a prime ministerial candidate.

Shelly Yacimovich 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Shelly Yacimovich 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The distance from the United Nations building in New York to the Labor Party’s headquarters at Beit Berl College on the outskirts of Kfar Saba is about 9,200 kilometers.
But they seemed light-years apart on Wednesday when more than 41,000 Labor members elected their new leader while the focus of the world – and especially the Middle East – was on US President Barack Obama’s pro-Israel speech at the UN.
Just like in the first round of voting in the Labor leadership race that was held the day after September 11, the attention of Israelis was on New York and not on the fifth-largest party in the Knesset.
Reports about the election were not even aired until nearly 45 minutes into the nightly news Wednesday night when most viewers had already switched over to a soccer game.
Meanwhile, at Beit Berl, one would have thought that the most important thing going on in the entire world was the counting of the votes from Acre to Eilat. Red-shirted supporters of MK Shelly Yacimovich, none of whom looked older than 30, started arriving at the Beit Berl auditorium shortly after midnight when it became clear that she had bested her former political patron, MK Amir Peretz.
Over the next two hours, the red shirts filled up the room and started shouting variations of the chants they had learned at Tel Aviv protest tents over the summer: ‘The nation elected social justice!’ and ‘Ooh, ahh, look what’s coming: a welfare state!’
When the head of the Labor election committee, former minister Ra’anan Cohen, formally proclaimed Yacimovich the victor at 2:24 a.m., the redshirted youngsters were ecstatic, as if they had gotten Daphni Leef elected president of the United States and Stav Shafir appointed UN secretary-general.
Nevertheless, one could make the argument that the Labor Party has become more dynamic than the UN. After all, at least year’s General Assembly, one could have predicted that the Palestinians would be no closer to a state the next time the world’s leaders met in New York and that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech would not be pro-Zionist.
But who would have fathomed a year ago that the perpetually eulogized Labor Party would shift from being the home of the dying pensioners of Givatayim, kibbutzim and Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood to the darling of Tel Aviv’s Shenkin circuit? And that a candidate who conducted her membership drive online could defeat Peretz’s well-oiled political machine?
In shifting from 74-year-old interim chairman Micha Harish to Yacimovich, Labor’s leader became 23 years younger. The average age of its membership has undoubtedly fallen further and it will continue to fall after Yacimovich announced a mass membership drive in her victory speech.
Labor is now officially the party of the tent protests. Its new leader not only speaks the language of the protesters, her refusal to discuss non-socioeconomic issues during the campaign dovetails the demonstrations, which were criticized for being disconnected from the socioeconomic problems of the wider world.
But just like the protests were a means to an end, so is Labor’s marriage to the tents. To achieve Yacimovich’s announced goal of restoring Labor’s status as the main alternative party to Likud, she will likely have to exit her proverbial socioeconomic tent and become the Center-Left’s main voice on diplomatic issues as well.
Yacimovich received her loudest applause during her victory speech when she called upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to express support for a Palestinian State at the General Assembly. The fact that she mentioned the UN in her speech shows that Labor may end up having something to say on all key issues and won’t be the “niche party” her political rivals said it would be if she won.
The crowd didn’t react when Yacimovich said Netanyahu had called to congratulate her, but they booed when she referred to congratulatory messages she had received from Center-Left politicians Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak. Unlike Peretz who spoke throughout the campaign about partnering with Kadima to unseat Netanyahu, Yacimovich’s strategy is to bring down Kadima as a first step on the long road back to power.
Calls have increased in Kadima in recent days to advance the party’s leadership race, which is currently set for the undefined date of “three months before the next general election.” Kadima voters could decide that now that Labor elected a leader who, like Livni, is an Ashkenazi woman from Tel Aviv, their party could stand a better chance if it fielded a Sephardi man from Eilat like MK Shaul Mofaz.

Yacimovich’s victory could also harm the chances of MK Zehava Gal-On getting elected head of Meretz in the party’s upcoming leadership race. And it could preempt the political career of journalist Yair Lapid, who was expected to form a young socioeconomically-minded party ahead of the next election.
Where was Lapid when the votes were being counted at Beit Berl? He was at the UN, co-anchoring Channel 2’s newscast, and according to his Facebook page, hobnobbing with the likes of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Palestinian official Saeb Erekat.
Yacimovich knows she has years of hard work ahead before she can be considered a prime ministerial contender. But she has come a long way already. And if she can restore Labor to center stage in Israeli politics, perhaps one day, Beit Berl and the UN won’t seem so far apart.