Politics & Diplomacy: A flawed leader

Does Yachimovich really have the political chops for the national, and international, stage?

Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich 521 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM / THE JERUSALEM POST)
Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich 521
I suppose you can’t argue with success. In the few short months she has been at the helm of Labor, 52-year-old former journalist Shelly Yachimovich has lifted the flailing party from eight seats in the current Knesset to more than 20 in poll projections. Luck has been on her side – she has picked up votes from a declining Kadima, a profound desire for sincere national leadership, and, most of all, from last summer’s social protests.
Social justice is Yachimovich’s calling card, and has been for years. From her radio days in the 1990s, she has been at the forefront of the battle against the aberrations and injustices of a neo-liberal economic system that has turned Israel into a tycoon-laden nation, with one of the world’s greatest gaps between rich and poor.
The summer protests indeed played to her strengths. Her book, We: On Economics, Society, Morality and Nationality in Israel, a collection of articles, broadcasts and speeches, is largely a plea for more equitable sharing of the national wealth and greater government investment in social services such as health, education and welfare. She is – and has been – an insistent and unwavering standard bearer in what is clearly a just cause. But there’s the rub: the trouble with yachimovich is the one-dimensional nature of her politics.
The leader of the center-left and potential prime minister has had little to say on ending the occupation, military service for Haredim, equality (social justice) for Israeli Arabs or war against Iran. she argues that Israel must first achieve social justice and only then turn to peacemaking with the Palestinians. In other words, yachimovich would only confront the occupation, eating at the heart of the Zionist enterprise, after establishing a degree of social utopia.
Her position is inherently flawed. For one, how can social justice coexist with occupation? Moreover, waiting for utopia means indefinite procrastination over the occupation, allowing the inevitable slide into a single Palestinian majority state, with internationally-backed calls for one man, one vote, growing delegitimization of Israel, and the end of the Zionist dream.
Yachimovich has made no attempt to contact Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. She has issued no words of warning about the consequences of the decline of the peace process. No one really knows her position on the Palestinian issue. Is she for a negotiated peace? And if so, are her views closer to those of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, the sponsors of the Geneva Initiative, or of sitting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Is she of the “if they give, they will get” school, or would she countenance a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank for the sake of a democratic Israel with a Jewish majority? One of the few times Yachimovich has actually enunciated the words “two states for two peoples” was in a socioeconomic pun suggesting a two-state reality in Israel proper – one for the rich who pay little tax and another for the rest who are taxed to the hilt.
Putting off tough decisions on the occupation until utopia reigns is jarringly reminiscent of hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s dictum that peace will not be possible for at least another generation. Indeed, some on the left accuse Yachimovich of a tacit agreement with the right to suppress public debate on the Palestinian issue, which may be helping her politically but is also helping to perpetuate the occupation. If so, this is truly bad news for Israel’s future. To create a just, democratic Israel, ending the occupation is at least as important as the reordering of socioeconomic priorities – not to mention Israel’s survival as a Jewish state.
Yachimovich’s PR advisers argue that elections in Israel can no longer be won from the Left, and are telling her to avoid leftist-sounding commitments. But she would be the first to censure cynical politicians, tapping into fashionable swells of public opinion. true leaders should not pander, but help educate towards the national interest – in this case two states for two peoples.
There is also a moral dimension.
Yachimovich has not been overly vocal on settler harassment of Palestinians, especially the so-called “price tag” phenomenon, in which rampaging settler gangs vandalize or burn palestinian property, including mosques, whenever the government does something of which they disapprove.
Indeed, her warm attitude towards the settlers in general raises questions about her left-wing credentials.
She dismisses arguments about government billions poured into the settlement enterprise at the expense of social betterment in Israel proper as demagoguery; and supports the West Bank city of Ariel and its controversial newly accredited university on the grounds that settlers were sent there by successive governments, and it would be hypocritical to forestall the town’s development, even though it was created primarily to sabotage hopes of a two-state solution. Is she currying favor with the settlers for electoral or future coalition purposes, or is this what she really believes? Under the skin, is she a kind of working-class tory, a Likudnik with a social conscience, like Haim Katz, Moshe Kahlon or Miri Regev.
Paucity of policy
For a center-left leader, Yachimovich has been surprisingly subdued on the current hot topic of Haredi national service. In fact, she actually urged those politicians pushing for equal service “to stop using divisive language designed to exacerbate sectarian rifts for political gain.” Surely she knows the math: that the economy cannot continue to sustain exponentially growing numbers of Haredim who don’t serve or work. In the same ball park, Labor failed to support a Meretz bill for public transport on the Sabbath, leaving left-wing critics to wonder whether Yachimovich – now theoretically electable – was trying to build a platform for future Haredi political support.
Yachimovich, the committed social democrat, has also had little to say on a square deal for Israeli Arabs. But surely social democracy goes beyond equal sharing of the national pie among the Jewish majority? What about universal human rights, universal access to social services and freedom from discrimination on the basis of religion or ethnicity? Indeed, Yachimovich seems to subscribe to a grand vision of a unified Jewish society based on social justice and conciliation among its disparate elements. For her, this seems to take precedence over all else. As part of this Jewish ecumenism, she has made well-publicized friendships with political opponents: Gideon Sa’ar of Likud and Yakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism. But if based on continued occupation, rampaging settlers, Haredim who don’t serve or work and inequality for Israeli Arabs, it would be a unity achieved at the price of narrow sectarian and nationalist groups dictating terms that make the social justice Yachimovich seeks impossible.
And there is another chink in her armor.
If she really wants to be prime minister with the power to create a more just society, Yachimovich urgently needs to start building foreign policy credentials. She needs to take an active part in the national security discourse – to say loud and clear what she thinks about war with Iran, the primacy of relations with the US and Israel’s place in a changing Middle East.
She has already established herself as the nation’s leading social justice campaigner; now she needs to spell out a wider, more coherent domestic and foreign policy vision that gives Israelis hope for a better future.
In short, to achieve success that really matters, she needs to add more arrows to her bow.