Analysis: Labor and the disappearing Left

Barak's image of Mr. Security has overshadowed the traditionally social side of his party.

barak 224.88 ap (photo credit: )
barak 224.88 ap
(photo credit: )
Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak doesn't know what's hit him. Consistently unflattering polls predict a painful crash in Labor's not-too-distant future. On Friday, former Labor icons officially announced a new leftist movement to back Meretz. Minister without Portfolio Ami Ayalon is among those considering crossing the Knesset aisle leftward, although Labor stalwart MK Ophir Paz-Pines, who had also wavered, told the party chairman on Thursday night he was staying put. Defense-minded Barak had issued an order to "hug" Paz-Pines tightly and not let him go. In an increasingly dark economic climate that could impact elections more than in previous years, Barak really could not afford to lose a socially minded MK like Paz-Pines. While former Labor chairman Amir Peretz waved the social banner in the last general election and reminded the public what differentiated Labor from Kadima and the Likud, this memory seems to have faded away under the leadership of Barak, whose image as Mr. Security has overshadowed the traditionally social side of Labor. This is why Barak put so much effort into keeping Paz-Pines close. Labor MKs with social-activist images, such as Shelly Yacimovich, Yuli Tamir and even Peretz, are more crucial for Barak than Ayalon, whose image is of security figure who led peace initiatives - just like Barak himself. But Labor is also losing support to the more centrist Kadima. Labor's leaders have expressed their disappointment with both Meretz and Kadima - two of the party's allies - for "stealing" supporters from the wrong party. Kadima, they say, is trying to appeal to Labor's traditional supporters instead of focusing on stealing Likud's voters, and Meretz is attracting former and current Labor figures, weakening the party even more, when Labor is more likely to cooperate with it than with parties on the right side of the map. This theory, presented by those in charge of shaping Labor's image ahead of February's general election, points to a deeper process influencing the Left, which seems to be disappearing. Once Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (Kadima) admitted to Meretz MK Yossi Beilin during a farewell session of the Knesset plenum that his political stances over the past 30 years had moved closer to Beilin's, it became clear that the Left was in danger. But the process started earlier, when Kadima founder and former prime minister Ariel Sharon endorsed a path of separation from the Palestinians that would cost Israel "painful concessions." It continued with Olmert's declarations that Israel would have to "tear off pieces of homeland in Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and in Judea and Samaria" - words he restated earlier this week. And it culminated when current Kadima leader and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni failed to form a government with Shas because of her refusal to take Jerusalem off the negotiation table with the Palestinians. "The current Israeli Left is identified with the peace camp, but this camp has expanded and reached even Livni and Olmert, who sounds lately as if he invented the peace camp," said Israel Prize winner Prof. Ze'ev Sternhell from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Historically 'Left' has a social connotation, while in Israel there is a distinction between social Left and political Left - a distinction that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world, and it means that the terminology is false. True Left is based on universal principles that recognize all people's right to be equal and to have freedom, and peace is an essential part of it," Prof. Sternhell added. Simultaneously Meretz - once an extreme Left party and today a party whose political agenda fits with Kadima's and Labor's - is becoming more appealing to wider sectors due to its advanced social platform. "Meretz hasn't neglected the social effort," Meretz chairman Haim Oron said. "We raise the social flag to the same height as we raise the political flag, and this is why I chose to be a member of the Finance Committee in the Knesset and not a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee." Oron, who has been working in the past months to consolidate a group of well-known and experienced left-wingers, said he hoped this group would strengthen the party and help create a new force that would aid in shaping processes in the long run, and not just for the upcoming elections. On Friday, this still-mysterious group will meet for the first time in Tel Aviv. Among those expected to attend are former Labor politicians Uzi Baram, Avraham Burg and Shlomo Ben-Ami, authors Amos Oz and David Grossman, and well-known academics such as Sternhell. Paz-Pines made the decision over his future on Thursday. Ayalon will have to reach his by Sunday - the final day to register for the December 2 Labor primary.