This Week in History: The Labor Party is born

While the latest blow to the Labor may spell uncertainty for country’s oldest political party, it will always hold a significant historical role.

Political parties in Israel are dynamic – changing names, splitting apart, joining together and shifting their platforms as time goes by. The latest instance of this phenomenon, the Labor party splitting in two, comes 43 years after three socialist labor Zionist parties joined together to create the Labor Party. On January 21, 1968, Mapai, Labor Unity (Ahdut Haavoda) and Rafi (Israel Workers List) united to form the largest political party in Israel’s history.
The Labor Party traces its history back to the Mapai and Labor Unity parties, which have their own history going back to the beginning of the 20th century. Originally founded on principles of socialism, Marxism and Zionism, the movement is responsible for several state institutions that continue to play extremely influential roles in the state of Israel and its society to this day.
From the early 1900s, Mapai played one of the most instrumental roles in building the future state of Israel. The Hagana and Palmah, military organizations organized under the umbrella of Mapai to protect Jewish settlers in British Mandate Palestine, later became the Israeli Defense Forces. The Histadrut (General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel) was not created by the Mapai party but its secretary starting in 1921, David Ben-Gurion, would soon closely align it with the party. The Histadrut was for many years one of the most powerful institutions in Israel. Additionally, Labor Unity and Mapai were both very influential in the state’s early kibbutz movements, which was one of the foundations of Labor Zionism and the building of the state.
Also synonymous with the building of the state of Israel is David Ben-Gurion. The Mapai party’s leader from the pre-state era until the mid-1960s, Ben-Gurion embodied the state-building process. He served as head of Mapai, the Histadrut and the Jewish Agency. This role as leader of so many state-building institutions and efforts gave his Mapai party the popular support it needed to become the state’s dominant political force for nearly thirty years.
Over a decade after Ben-Gurion first stepped down from the Mapai leadership, the party joined an alliance with the ideologically similar Labor Unity party. The move was intended to consolidate support following Ben-Gurion’s split from the party. Three years later, following the Six Day War, the two aligned parties consolidated once again with the party Ben-Gurion had started, Rafi, to form the modern Labor Party (called Labor Alliance at the time).
With its 54 mandates, the newly formed Labor party became the largest in Knesset history. The consolidated Labor-Zionist party would continue Mapai’s uninterrupted rule for another nine years until Likud under Menachem Begin won elections for Israel’s ninth Knesset, relinquishing only 32 mandates to Labor. Since that defeat, the Labor party has never led the government for more than four years at a time.
The party has seen several ideological and political shifts since its days as Mapai. Large swaths of Israel’s leaders have risen through the party’s ranks. Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres all served as Mapai or Labor prime ministers, each slightly shifting the direction of the party and the country. While the earlier leaders are oftentimes remembered for the wars fought under their command, later leaders like Rabin and Peres are more closely associated with peace processes and many analysts attribute the woes of the Labor Party in the last fifteen years to the failure of those attempts at peace making. The last Labor government was headed by Ehud Barak, which saw the last of the Labor-led peace attempts fail at Camp David in 2000.
The Labor party and its predecessors have been a major force in the history of the State of Israel. It has also seen its share of splits, unifications, realignments, rises and falls through its history that out-dates the state itself. From its role in building the IDF, to the Kibbutz Movement and the leaders it brought the country, it has been a constant presence in an Israeli political system that sees political parties appear and disappear with each new election cycle. Its latest split this week brought the party to its all-time smallest representation in the Knesset. While the latest blow to Labor may spell uncertainty for the country’s oldest political party, it will always hold a significant historical role that is closely aligned with the history of Israel.