Analysis: A requiem for Labor - or a new lease on life?

The talk at the convention ranged from portfolios to whether Labor has a future.

Labor boo 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Labor boo 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The two coin-operated black massage couches, the kind where you sit and relax while the little motorized balls inside the leather work their way up your legs and back, should have been working overtime. But none of the 1,200 Labor Party convention delegates packed into the smoke-filled cafeteria at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on Tuesday had any time for a five-minute rubdown. When the Labor delegates last convened in November, two months ahead of the general elections, it was for a simple vote on internal party rules. This time they were deciding Labor's future. Around the cafeteria tables, the talk was about how Labor's anti-coalition MKs would behave after they lost Tuesday's vote, whether they would split the party, whether the party itself had any future, and which jobs would be given to which ministers and MKs. For some, Tuesday's vote represents a new lease on life for a party that was rapidly losing its relevance. Labor now heads into the government with serious portfolios, and it believes it will be able to moderate Binyamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. It will fight to change the system from within. The threatened opposition within the coalition probably will not materialize, or if it does, be sustained, as the "rebel MKs" within Labor are not likely to vote against every single government decision. And even if they do vote against their own government from time to time, that could serve to keep Netanyahu in check. For others, the convention was a requiem, the end of the road. Like the street urchin wearing a cardboard sign around his neck bearing the words "The end is nigh," some delegates, from both camps, were convinced that Labor was finished. Those who lost the vote argued that a social democratic party which champions peace in the Middle East has no business in a right-wing government cohabited by the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-nationalist. Labor has lost its agenda, and thus its purpose. The landslide result only reinforced the feeling that the delegates had voted out of material interests, and not ideology. The most aggrieved by the result were the party's young guard. The young delegates desperately wanted to rehabilitate Labor from the opposition, to capture the imagination of the country's youth with firebrand social democratic activism. They're emotionally invested and want to fight the next government from the outside. They lack a leader now, and are disillusioned. They're in their late 20s-to-early 30s. Most of them grew up in the party's youth movement, some are student activists and leaders, and some held candlelight vigils at the scene of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination back in 1995. For them, Tuesday truly was an ideological showdown. They were the loudest grouping in the convention hall, moving in packs of five or 10 to different parts of the hall to shout their anti-coalition slogans. While their numbers were small, their antics made them seem more numerous. For Labor's young guard, entering the coalition now feels like death, like their football team just lost in the final minute of the State Cup. They're the closest to the country's youth, they see how fewer and fewer young people care about politics, how fewer of them even bother to vote, and if they do vote, it's usually wasted on a gimmick party. And they hear the seething disgust the young people of Israel have for the country's politicians. "Who is going to vote for us in the future if we carry on like this?," they ask. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer joined the government, Shimon Peres joined the government, and now Barak is joining the government. It's in Labor's DNA to join the government, and this needs to change, they say. There is little room for Labor to grow among the country's youth now, the young delegates say. While the young Turks pranced and strutted around the hall making a hullabaloo and starting fights with the security guards, some older delegates, who have been to one or two conventions in their day, quietly shot one another knowing glances from their seats. They knew this game was rigged, they knew Barak had won even before the speeches started. The words were just a show; everybody knew how they were going to vote, and they didn't need last minute rhetoric to sway them. All the deals were closed hours and days before the convention. A joke making the rounds among the delegates had Meretz MKs driving to their faction meeting in a Volkswagen Beetle [they have only three Knesset seats]. As long as Labor sticks together at 13 MKs it's still funny - but if the party splits, which now looks increasingly unlikely, nobody in the party will laugh at Meretz anymore. There was a lot of talk about Meretz here. Those delegates disappointed by the result say Labor has given the Left over to Meretz. The winners say that had Labor gone into the opposition, it would have ended up as small as Meretz, or worse. Labor would not have survived in the opposition with only seven or so MKs constantly fighting each other. Nobody wants to talk about a split in the party, but everyone has a position on whether it can rehabilitate itself, and where that rehabilitation should take place. Some of the older delegates said Labor had to rehabilitate itself in the opposition, even under the shadow of Kadima. They pointed out that Likud crashed to 12 seats two elections ago, stayed in the opposition, and look where they are now: at 27 seats and back in power. Labor can do that to, if it finds a way to differentiate itself from Kadima. Avigdor Lieberman was also in the opposition, and look where he is now. So anything is possible, these delegates said. But for the approximately 150 immigrant delegates, who are mostly from the periphery, there really was no question as to how to vote. For Russian-speaking delegates from Upper Nazareth, Ma'alot and other northern towns, the equation is simple: if you're not in the government, you're a nobody; you have no influence, you're not counted and you may as well pack it in. For them, opposition spells death. The biggest problem in the North right now is not Katyushas from Lebanon, but the growing unemployment and breakdown of social cohesion caused by economic hardship. There's no ideology here. The Russians gave up on Labor years ago, after, they say, Labor gave up on them. The Russians say they are not religious, not Mizrahi, not naturally right wing, and very pro-social democratic - Labor should have been a natural home for them. Over the years Labor could have developed this sector, pushed up some Russian MKs and invested in the community, but it didn't - and so in this sector there is no room for growth. Sitting at plastic tables near the cafeteria's corner, where the massage chairs are, and smoking strong cigarettes, the Russian delegates who stayed with Labor over the years speak enviously of their compatriots in Israel Beiteinu, wishing that in their party, too, the chairman could decide which direction to take the party in and forget about this stupid vote. Read Amir's blog