The predicament of neophyte Labor MK Daniel Ben-Simon could be seen as a
metaphor for the party as a whole. He tried his best this week to leave
But he was given the wrong impression that the faction’s other 12
MKs would sign a document enabling him to break off into a one-man faction and
let him go quietly. When multiple MKs refused to sign, he was left trapped, or
as he put it, a hostage in his own political home.
Similarly, Labor has
long seemed trapped in its perpetual problems and Sisyphean schisms, as well as
the burden of its storied history.
Its eulogizers are not just in Kadima,
which hopes to permanently supplant it as the party of the center-left, but also
in Labor itself. Besides Ben-Simon, rebellious MKs Amir Peretz and Eitan Cabel
would leave immediately if they could. They have already started signing up
dozens of supporters in Kadima’s membership drive.
But it’s not just
opponents of party chairman Ehud Barak who are trying to abandon what appears to
be a sinking ship. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon and Deputy Defense
Minister Matan Vilna’i, who both are or were close to Barak, are seeking the
chairmanship of the Jewish National Fund.
Labor is also facing a divisive
leadership race, ongoing battles over when to leave Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu’s coalition and a NIS 30 million debt that would sound staggering to
anyone unaware that the debt surpassed NIS 100 million just a few years
But the worst news for Labor this week came when a bill Cabel
sponsored that would have allowed outgoing IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen.
Gabi Ashkenazi to enter politics failed in the Ministerial Committee on
It didn’t get a single vote from any of the 19 ministers on
the panel, who didn’t want to give him a chance to revive Labor.
for the man who polls show could have restored Labor to the 19 seats it had
before the last election.
Other potential saviors, such as former
chairman Amram Mitzna or Histadrut chief Ofer Eini, do not seem to be hurrying
to join what could be a political graveyard.
AND YET perhaps the solution
to all of Labor’s problems is not a new head but a new body of young activists
and voters who, against all odds, could rebuild the party and give it new life.
That’s not only the hope but also the game plan of its new secretary-general,
35-year-old Jerusalem city councilman Hilik Bar.
In an interview at a
popular waffle bar in the capital conducted after 11 p.m. following his usual
long work day, Bar vows to prove that the party is already not only on its way
to recovery, but also to restoring its former place as one of the two ruling
“I don’t believe a messiah will come and save the party,” Bar
says. “I think Labor is bigger than any MK, minister or even chairman. As
Ben-Simon said when he joined Labor, it’s the only party we have that formed a
country. I am very optimistic that the party won’t die and that no MK, minister
or chairman can kill the party, even if he tries real hard.”
the beginning of Labor’s tough times not to the Rabin assassination – as others
do – but to its immediate aftermath, when he believes the party’s leaders
misread Rabin’s legacy and refocused the party solely on the peace process and
abandoned the socioeconomic, education and civic vision he also
“We became obsessed with finishing Rabin’s mission of bringing
peace,” Bar says. “This made us a niche party. The public punished us for
abandoning the socioeconomic issue and for not bringing peace. Our only chance
to recover is if we put peace on the side and wave the socioeconomic banner,
while reminding the public that on the diplomatic issue we were right all
When reminded of Peretz, Bar says the fact that a
socioeconomically inclined leader managed to maintain 19 seats for the party
despite the many voters who went to Kadima proved that emphasizing the issue was
effective. He says, though, that Peretz’s hubris in taking the Defense portfolio
set the party back significantly.
“This was even more proof that Labor
had abandoned the poor and could only handle peace and security,” Bar says. “The
truth is that peace and Barack Obama don’t interest the average Joe.”
has been spending a lot of time with average Joes around the country, touring
Labor branches where activists have told him they had not been visited by any
Labor MK in four years. But despite their frustration with such neglect, the
activists he has met have told Bar they are determined to keep the party
“They say they won’t let the most important brand in Israel die,”
he says. “They are broken from all the fights and all the attempts by our
politicians to kill each other and self-destruct, but they still want to make an
effort to help rebuild the party.”
BAR INTENDS to take four steps in
upcoming weeks to advance the party and send a message to the skeptical press
and public that it is actually on the way up, not down.
First he is using
the budget available to him now that much of the debt is paid to renew activity
in Labor’s branches with an emphasis on taking advantage of the student
leadership that the party still dominates on campuses nationwide. He says
Labor’s relatively strong Young Guard proves that the young generation is
looking for an ideological party with roots.
Next month, a new Labor
interactive website will be launched that he promises will be the most
sophisticated of any party site in the country. It will include social
networking for party activists and a large section on the party’s
Then in March, Labor will conduct a new membership drive under
the slogan “Build the party that built the country.” He promises that unlike
notorious drives in the past, this one will be clean and will focus on young
Lastly, Labor will hold a two-day ideological convention in
Jerusalem in May to draft the party’s platform on socioeconomic, diplomatic,
education, environmental and municipal issues. A preview of the convention took
place at last month’s unpublicized meeting of the party’s executive committee,
at which activists and MKs debated details of a diplomatic position paper for
more than three hours.
Bar says that meeting showed him that there are
signs of life in Labor and that it maintains an ideology that parties like
Shinui, the Center Party and Kadima were never able to imitate.
Center Party and Shinui were built on their leaders,” he says. “As soon as
Kadima has a leadership crisis, it too will explode from within and collapse
like a house of cards, and people will come back to us and join what we are
building. I am convinced that we can restore our place as the party of the
center-left, and I know it won’t be easy, but I believe we will persuade
everyone else, too.”