Middle Israel: Why does Labor always lose?

The culture of denial in which Labor lives has inspired the critiques that accompanied its campaign and the autopsies that followed its defeat.

April 16, 2015 21:34
Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni

Labor Party chief Isaac Herzog (L) and Hatnua chair Tzipi Livni announce their political alliance in Tel Aviv . (photo credit: REUTERS)


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With Hitler’s armies rolling deep into Russia after having crushed entire Red Army divisions, Stalin began executing colonels and generals for failing to win the war that he had failed to prevent.

That is also how Israel’s Labor Party has been reacting to its chronic electoral defeats.

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What began last century, when the party ejected Shimon Peres from its pilot’s seat after his defeat by Benjamin Netanyahu, has since been followed by the ejections of Binyamin Ben-Eliezer in 2002, Amram Mitzna in 2003, Shimon Peres (again) in 2005, Amir Peretz in 2007 and Shelli Yacimovich in 2013.

It takes no statistician to suspect that a similar fate now awaits Isaac Herzog, who leads a party that effectively tells its leaders what Henry VIII told his wives: Deliver or die.

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The Red Army’s battlefield executions were halted when Georgy Zhukov, the marshal who ultimately led it to victory, refused to kill more generals. When Stalin demanded an explanation, Zhukov answered: “We tried that already, and it doesn’t work.”

Someone had better shout this sentence in the middle of Labor’s convention when it next meets. For what Labor needs is not a new leader, but a new path, one that demands a kind of introspection which most politicians are not built to endure, or even just ignite.

THE CULTURE of denial in which Labor lives has inspired the critiques that accompanied its campaign and the autopsies that followed its defeat.

Thus, Herzog made much of painter Yair Garbuz’s exhortations at a pro-Labor rally against “kissers of amulets” who “prostrate over the tombs of saints” before lumping them together with sex offenders and big business. If not for this artist’s sermon, insinuated Herzog, Labor might have won.

Picking up on this theme, Nehemiah Strassler wrote in Haaretz that “the main explanation for the election’s result” is that “the ethnic genie is alive and well,” meaning that the Likud won because of the social gaps between Israeli Jews of European and Mideastern backgrounds.

Well both these lamentations ignore the fact that since the post-Soviet immigration, and due to drastically reduced birthrates, the ratio of non-Ashkenazim among Israeli Jews has plunged from nearly one in two to less than one in three, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

That means that the gross potential of the Jewish “Mideastern vote” is roughly 28 Knesset seats. Subtract from that the six seats this electorate gave Shas, and also the several of Kulanu’s 10 mandates it is believed to have provided, and about half of the Likud’s 30 mandates remain unaccounted for. Where did they come from? The moon? They came from Ashkenazim, and this is besides the fact that, despite Strassler’s gross generalization, many non-Ashkenazim do vote for Labor, just as most of Yisrael Beytenu and Bayit Yehudi’s collective 14 seats came mostly from Ashkenazim.

In short, attributing Labor’s defeat to the “ethnic genie” is escapist. The same goes for spin doctor Reuven Adler’s belief that Herzog’s rotation agreement with Tzipi Livni was pivotal in Labor’s defeat.

Yes, it was a bad idea, but it was ultimately canceled, and the cancellation did not dent, let alone offset, voting patterns.

So pervasive is the mentality of denial surrounding Labor’s defeat that Channel 2’s ordinarily down to earth political analyst Amnon Abramowitz responded to Labor’s defeat by decrying its failure to exhume Shaul Mofaz’s political cadaver. “A former chief of staff and defense minister of Mizrahi background,” said the starry-eyed commentator of the late Kadima party’s last leader, conveniently forgetting that Mofaz was a political dilettante who oversaw his party’s dive from 28 to two Knesset seats.

These, then, are some of the widely circulating, and glaringly evasive, explanations for Labor’s defeat. So why, then, does Labor always lose? HAVING VOTED over the years for Rabin, Peres and Barak, before that for Amnon Rubinstein’s Shinui, and then for Lapidthe- father’s Shinui, and then for Lapid-theson’s reincarnation of that party, and in the interim for Ehud Olmert, I am one of thousands Labor must debrief if it wants to know the truth about its crisis.

And the truth is as simple as it is painful: Labor is losing because it denies Oslo’s failure.

Even before debriefing the voters who deserted it – a marketing prerequisite this party incredibly avoids, preferring its spin doctors’ voodoo medications – a simple glance at recent decades’ electoral history will reveal the truth.

Since last decade’s Camp David summit Labor lost all six elections, never coming close to victory, absorbing also the worst electoral defeat ever seen here, when Ariel Sharon crushed Barak by a majority of nearly two to one.

By contrast, in the two decades after 1981 – the first election after it first lost power – Labor won two elections handily, tied one, and lost three narrowly. By the way, Labor registered these performances when the non-Ashkenazi share of the population was at its peak, but that’s beside the point.

The point is that after giving Oslo one last chance in 1999, the swing vote emerged from last decade’s violence emotionally unable to vote for Labor.

Anyone who shielded children in those days of awe will never forget the experience and the thoughts it evoked. By the same token that Middle Israelis voted for the principle of land for peace, in which we still believe, we now voted against gullibility, denial and recklessness.

Those of us who voted for Peres last century will always lament Yitzhak Shamir’s derailment of his effort to restore most of the West Bank to King Hussein. But that’s water under the bridge. Labor’s subsequent assumption, that Yasser Arafat would prove as worthy an interlocutor as Hussein, proved both unfounded and fateful. The voters Labor lost believe that Arafat negotiated in bad faith, that Labor’s leaders were bamboozled, and that if not for this gamble much of the subsequent bloodshed would have been avoided.

Now, as a wise, Labor-affiliated political scientist told me a decade ago, Oslo is for Labor what the Depression was for the Republicans: a trauma that ordinary folk will never forget and will always associate with its political engineers, who in America’s case were left out of power for 20 years.

TO RESTORE the political mainstream’s trust, Labor must first respect its trauma.

For now, it does not even detect, let alone share, its lost electorate’s feelings.

Instead, like Shabtai Zvi’s believers after his conversion, Labor’s theology continues to insist that its false messiah wasn’t fake, and will soon return.

It is this culture of denial that makes Labor blame the lack of peace on Israel, ignoring Arafat’s rejection of Bill Clinton and Barak’s sweeping land-for-peace proposal in 2000 and Mahmoud Abbas’s of Ehud Olmert’s in 2008, and of Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech which Abbas dismissed as “insincere,” instead of meeting with him the following day.

Centrist voters also expect the self-described heirs to David Ben-Gurion, Berl Katznelson and Yigal Allon to join the rest of us as we confront those who defame the settlers. Yes, we think they are wrong, but we don’t think they are criminals.

We distinguish between mistakes, which most settlements were, and crimes, which they were not. Labor’s failure to say this, clearly and loudly, puts off the electorate it is so eager to reclaim, and leaves the impression that it is not the party of pragmatic pioneers who built the Jewish state.

Labor has tried everything since Oslo.

It changed leaders nine times, it joined Ariel Sharon – wisely – when he fought terror, it split between backers and opponents of the anti-terror fence, it left Sharon’s government twice – in 2002 and in 2005 – demanding greater social spending, it tried Amir Peretz’s populist vitriol, Shelli Yacimovich’s Keynesian sermonizing, and Herzog’s Tony Blair-y sobriety. Everything, that is, except one thing: repentance.

And that is how things will remain as long as Labor continues searching for new horses, searching for the next whimsical slogan, searching for a more photogenic poster, searching for the next YouTube skit, and searching for its rivals’ dirt – instead of searching its soul.


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