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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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.