Shelly Yacimovich at Labor HQ 311.
(photo credit: Gil Hoffman)
When Tony Blair took over the leadership of the British Labour Party in 1994,
the party had been out of office for nearly two decades. Under the banner of
“New Labor,” Blair moved his party away from the Left and into the center ground
of British politics, winning an unprecedented three successive general election
victories for his party before standing down as prime minister in 2007. If
Shelly Yacimovich, the new leader of Israel’s Labor Party can be only a third as
successful as Blair, it will still be a stunning achievement for someone who
entered the Knesset a mere six years ago.
To be fair, the political
circumstances in Britain when Blair won his first election were very different
to those facing Yacimovich today. Blair had the advantage of competing against a
deeply unpopular and stale Conservative administration that was imploding after
being in power for too long, while the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post
constituency system also made it much easier for an opposition party to overtake
But the central lesson of Blair’s success is something
Yacimovich should take to heart: Blair took a brand that had long been regarded
as political toxin and turned it into electoral gold through ruthless
repositioning and peerless campaigning. He rid the British Labour Party of the
trade unions’ stranglehold, ditched the old-style socialist rhetoric that the
voters had spurned election after election and, most importantly, offered the
British public a sense of hope following years of Conservative
WITH NO more than a year or so at the most before Israel next
goes to the polls (no Israeli government has ever sat out its full four-year
term, and Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman will soon be looking for a reason
to bring down Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition and position himself as the true
leader of the Israeli Right), Yacimovich does not have long to establish herself
as Labor’s new leader and strike out a new path for the party.
the summer of social protest, Yacimovich has been given an agenda that can play
to Labor’s advantage, providing she understands the cards she has been dealt.
The marches and protests up and down the country were not made up of would-be
revolutionaries who were seeking to overthrow the capitalistic system. Rather,
they were demonstrations filled with hard-working, mainly secular, middle-class
Israelis, fed up with being milked by a government that protected the interests
of a small and interconnected economic elite on the one hand while subsidizing a
work-shy haredi public on the other.
In the distant past, the Labor Party
was the party of choice for Israel’s middle class. It stood for a moderate,
social-democratic vision for the economy as well as a willingness to make
territorial compromises in the search for peace. That vision brought Yitzhak
Rabin to power back 1992 after Yitzhak Shamir’s failures on both the economic
and diplomatic fronts made the country ripe for electoral change.
SAME situation is true today. On the diplomatic front, German Chancellor Angela
Merkel was absolutely right when she told Prime Minister Netanyahu on Rosh
Hashana that this government’s plans to build 1,100 more homes over the Green
Line raised doubts that his government is interested in starting serious
negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. And economically, despite
Netanyahu’s protestations that he has undergone a change of economic heart, it
still very much remains to be seen whether he is prepared to overhaul his free
market beliefs or his willingness to continue paying political bribery to his
haredi coalition partners.
If Yacimovich is to be successful, she has to
loosen her ties to Histadrut leader Ofer Eini, whose main interest lies in
protecting the strong labor unions in the Israel Electric Corporation, as well
as the Ports Authority, who are every bit as detrimental to the economy as the
concentration of economic power in a small number of families. She must turn her
attention to the working middle class, families that are struggling to avoid an
overdraft at the bank at the end of every month. Labor’s economic message has to
be one of fairness, where people are rewarded for contributing to society and
tax breaks are granted to the deserving, not to those who need them least. There
should be a safety net for those, be it through lack of skills, education or
illness, unable to work, but the continued state funding of lifelong yeshiva
study for haredi men must come to an end.
Kadima, either under the
increasingly beleaguered Tzipi Livni or her challenger Shaul Mofaz, has nothing
to offer on the economic front. A party comprised mainly of Likud renegades, it
has no coherent social vision for the country and this leaves room for a
re-energized Labor Party to make its mark, providing Yacimovich is wise enough
to widen her outlook.
Tony Blair succeeded in getting Britain’s Labour
Party repeatedly elected because he convinced the British public at the time
that Labour could be trusted to run the economy. The onus is on Yacimovich to
convince Israelis that she too can be trusted to deliver on middle-class
Israelis’ hopes for a better future for them and their children. Even moderate
Likud voters, as Rabin proved, can be tempted to vote Labor if the party gets
its message right.The writer is a former editor-in-chief of
Jerusalem Post.Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Tony Blair was elected head of the British Labour Party in 1996 instead of 1994. The mistake, inserted during the editing process, has been corrected.