Labor newbie takes the helm

Will the election of MK Shelly Yacimovich as chairwoman of the Labor Party lead to political and social change?

Shelly Yacimovich at Labor HQ 311 (photo credit: Gil Hoffman)
Shelly Yacimovich at Labor HQ 311
(photo credit: Gil Hoffman)
ON SEPTEMBER 21, LABOR Knesset Member Shelly Yacimovich, in a second round of primary elections, defeated her former mentor, MK Amir Peretz, by more than nine percent of the votes cast.
She thus becomes the first woman to head the Labor Party since Gold Meir in the 1970s and the second woman, alongside Kadima Chair Tzipi Livni, now heading a major political party.
Her political trajectory has been impressive.
Yacimovich, 51, a resident of Tel Aviv and the mother of two, entered the political arena only six years ago. A former journalist, she was well-known from her highly rated radio and Tv talk shows, in which she focused on social issues and civil rights. She catapulted herself into politics without any connections to the political or military establishments, Israel’s most common training ground for would-be political leaders. In these primaries, she managed to defeat two former party chairmen (Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna) and a well-regarded former cabinet minister (Yitzhak Herzog).
She’s still a newbie. During her short time in politics, she has never even chaired a significant parliamentary committee, let alone held an executive position such as minister or even deputy minister. Yet she was responsible for at least 36 socially oriented pieces of legislation, quite a feat even for more experienced parliamentarians.
Even her opponents acknowledge that she’s knowledgeable and well-versed on social issues. “Shelly’s so smart that it may be a disadvantage,” says a parliamentary aide, who speaks to The Report on condition of anonymity because she represents a different MK. “She really understands the issues, so she doesn’t see things in simplistic, black-and-white terms. But that can be annoying to other politicians who aren’t as thorough. In the Knesset, we all joke that Shelly is one of the few MKs that actually reads the hundreds of pages of the budget proposal – and probably the only one who actually understands what she reads.”
THE PRIMARY CAMPAIGN WAS drawn out and highly contentious, and the run-off between Yacimovich and Peretz was nasty, even deteriorating once into a fist fight between their supporters, while Yacimovich looked on (although she later denounced the violence).
The situation of the Labor Party, reduced to only eight MKs in the current Knesset, has been improving ever since former party chairman and current defense minister Ehud Barak bolted from the party in January 2011.  And while the tense primaries revealed the depth of the ongoing internal conflicts within the party, the fact that Labor was able to present four credible candidates for chairman – unlike any other party at this time – has also encouraged support among voters.
And it is clear that Yacimovich has brought in added value and just may be the right person at the right time to reinvigorate the party.
Her campaigning methods were different than anything the Labor Party had ever seen before. Unlike the established candidates, who relied on party mechanisms and registrations, Yacimovich – whom almost everyone refers to as Shelly – made extensive use of social media, encouraged small contributions, and activated volunteers throughout the country.
“I haven’t been active in the Labor Party for years,” Idit Ohayon, a 31-year-old teacher from Haifa, tells The Report. “I was too disgusted – with Labor in particular and with politics in general. But Shelly made me hopeful. She’s exciting, she’s gutsy. And she’s a woman and she cares.”
Yacimovich had made a name for herself as a social campaigner and one of the defining voices of social democracy long before this summer’s protest movement. And so, although she kept her distance from the tent camps – because, her supporters tell The Report, she didn’t want to be seen as opportunistic – she is in a perfect position to become the representative of the movement in the Knesset.
Polls published in the media are showing that, were elections to take place today, Labor would become the second-largest party, with upwards of 20 mandates in the 120-seat Knesset.
Most of these votes, however, come from reshuffling the political deck rather than any real new alignments. The center-right bloc, led by Likud head and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and including Yisrael Beiteinu as well as the ultra-Orthodox and other right- and far right-wing parties, is not currently challenged by Labor’s revival and can maintain a clear majority.
According to the polls, Labor will be pulling votes from Kadima and from some of the left-wing parties, leaving the imbalance between the center-right and center-left blocs fairly stable.
At least for the short-term, Yacimovich’s political strategy seems well-defined. She has given no press interviews – and declined, through her spokespersons, to be interviewed by The Report – preferring to issue sharply worded press statements.  She is likely to focus almost solely on social issues and to remain fairly mum on diplomatic issues and the conflict with the Palestinians.
To date, her only statements on the conflict to the media were in an extensive interview, in mid-summer, to the weekend magazine of the left-wing “Haaretz” daily, in which she was quoted as saying that she “does not see the settlement project as a sin and a crime.” This comment drew fire from many leftists, including in the Labor Party, who accused her of playing to the right. But, in the absence of other statements, it also helped her position herself as a pragmatic and inclusive politician.
Yacimovich, says a source close to her, learned her lessons from Peretz’s failures. Although in the 2006 elections, Peretz ran on a social platform, he took the position of defense minister in Ehud Barak’s government. His supporters felt betrayed, his term is widely regarded to have been an abysmal failure and he was severely criticized by the Winograd Commission that investigated the Second Lebanon War.
“Shelly’s ambitious, and she wants to be prime minister,” says the source. “But she knows it’s not the time. So she doesn’t have to make statements on everything. She’ll firm up her position as head of the socialdemocratic camp, as someone who presents a new vision for Israeli society. There are plenty of other members of the party who’ll be speaking out on the diplomatic issues. She doesn’t have to.”
On social issues, she can be expected to go after Livni, whom she regards as a neoliberal capitalist, as well as Netanyahu. And it is clear that Netanyahu, in particular, is vulnerable, since the social protests of the summer may force him to forgo some of his most cherished economic policies.
After the Trajtenberg Committee investigating the social protests submitted its preliminary report, Yacimovich, at a meeting of the Labor Party, pointedly declared that the report was “not only not a cure for the ills of Israeli society – but part of the same illness… taken from the Netanyahu school of economics.”
Yachimovich won the primaries  during the same week as three men made it to the finals in the “Master Chef” television competition. So at least for a week or two, local feminists could gloat that, finally, women – Yacimovich in Labor and Livni in Kadima – were in politics while the men were doing time in the kitchen.
Indeed, much is being made of the fact that not only are two women heading major political parties, they may be facing off and competing against each other for votes.
But as Kadima loses public support, competition against Livni within her own party is growing. Nor is it clear that these two women represent a definitive crack in Israel’s political glass ceiling. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of parliaments, Israel ranks far below other Western countries in terms of women’s participation in politics; only 23 out of 120 Knesset members are women, or 19.2 percent. While this percentage has fluctuated over the years, it has never been higher than 20 percent.
Furthermore, women are distinctly absent in other political spheres, including local and municipal governments, political party offices, and the military, which remain important staging grounds for political careers.
Yet it is likely, says Prof. Hanna Herzog of Tel Aviv University, that the strong visibility and extensive publicity that Yacimovich and Livni receive may contribute to subtle changes in the perception of women’s roles and to a breakdown of gender stereotypes.
As part of her social justice platform, Yacimovich has strongly supported classic feminist issues, such as concern over violence against women, child care allotments, and subsidies for single-parent families. But for anyone who believes that women are “inherently more peaceful,” Yacimovich’s style – abrasive, curt and arrogant, with little patience for social subtleties – will soon convince them otherwise.
Yacimovich can sling mud with the best of them and is known as a soloist rather than a team player. Since both men and women find it difficult to work with her, it remains unclear to what extent she will be able to mentor young female – or male, for that matter – protégés.
It is unlikely that the fact that Yacimovich is a woman played a critical role in her success. Unlike other Western countries, Israeli voting trends have never revealed a gendered voting pattern, or what is commonly referred to as a “gender gap.” But this, says Herzog, may be changing. “In the 2009 elections,” she tells The Report, “the attempt by some of the parties to mount a negative campaign against Tzipi Livni, focusing on the fact that she is a woman, backfired. In fact, it heightened women’s awareness of gender issues. When women are undecided about candidates, the gender factor can make a decisive difference regarding whom they’ll vote for.”
And since women make up more than half of the self-defined undecided voters, that could be a critical factor.
Yet, in many ways, Yacimovich is somewhat of a post-feminist, similar to the ways in which US President Barack Obama has positioned himself as somewhat of a postracial politician. That is, while recognizing gender inequities, she is likely to move beyond a liberal feminist platform to more inclusive policies and to emphasize, for example, mainstreaming rather than affirmative action.
THE UPCOMING KNESSET TERM is expected to be particularly difficult for Netanyahu, who will be facing a host of challenges: domestic social unrest, regional instability, growing diplomatic isolation, and the difficulties with Egypt, Turkey and possibly Jordan, to name a few. He also faces challenges from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who may be pushing for early elections – and the impending comptroller’s report on the Carmel forest fires of last year, which is expected to be devastatingly critical.
Yacimovich can be expected to be an articulate and effective opposition leader.
But first, she will have to deal with the opposition within her own party. The Labor party has already finished off seven chairmen in 10 years, and most of them left bruised and humiliated.
Its activists will have to overcome the lingering effects of the primaries. It took nearly two full weeks for Yacimovich and Peretz to even arrange a meeting, and while they have both publicly stated that they will work together, the enmity between them was visible even in their body language as they stood together at the annual Labor Party Rosh Hashana toast.
At that event, Yitzhak Herzog announced that he was “throwing all the emotions into the sea. We want to work together and show that even the Labor party can work together.”
And indeed, Yacimovich will not only need the support from Peretz, who after all did receive 45 percent of the vote, but also from Herzog, who will probably emphasize diplomatic and international issues and act as a sort of “shadow” foreign minister for the Labor Party.
Above all, Yacimovich will have to try to change what is popularly referred to as the “Labor Party’s DNA.” Says the aide who asked not to be named, “The members of the Labor Party have a sort of perverse obsession to stab each other in the back. It’s almost like they can’t help themselves.”
But Labor MK Daniel Ben-Simon hopes that things will be different from now on. “I really thought the party might die,” he says.
“Now I’m more optimistic. I didn’t support Shelly, but I see the potential she is bringing us. We will work together, we’ll accept her leadership, and we’ll succeed.”
Speaking to the crowd at the toast, even Peretz was hopeful. “More things unite us than separate us,” he declared. “It is true that an election campaign can leave scars, but working together is a must. Now the real rival is the Likud and Netanyahu.”