Yachimovich’s Labor of love

The peace process is not a top priority for the most popular candidate to lead Labor. The Labor MK’s focus on domestic issues is attracting voters that have already concluded that an agreement is unobtainable for now.

sheli yehimovich 298 (photo credit: Ori Porat)
sheli yehimovich 298
(photo credit: Ori Porat)
One of the most intriguing results of last week’s split in the Labor Party was the follow-up polling on whom voters would prefer to see replacing Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the party’s helm. Of the current likely candidates, the person whom polls showed bringing the party most seats was Sheli Yachimovich - a first-term MK who has devoted her brief time in office exclusively to economic and social issues.
RELATED: How we love to hate (Premium)The democrats vs. the non-democrats (Premium)Is it good for the Jews? (Premium) Guillotine Politics (Premium)The Left, the Right and the appropriation oflanguage(Premium)
Granted, this is partly due to the weakness of her potential rivals: MKs Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Isaac Herzog, for instance, have repeatedly served as cabinet ministers with few achievements to show for it, while former MK Amram Mitzna led the party to a landslide defeat when he chaired it in 2003, then quit in a huff several months later. Yachimovich, by contrast, has proved an energetic and effective legislator.
But the significance of her chosen focus cannot be ignored. During two years in office, Yachimovich has barely uttered a word about the peace process, preferring to devote herself exclusively to domestic issues. Yet Labor Party voters, who largely identify themselves as members of the “peace camp,” would rather be led by her than by her rivals, all of whom claim to view the “peace process” as a top priority. What gives?
The answer is simple: Most Israeli voters, including thosein Labor, agree with Yachimovich that domestic issues ought to be thetop priority right now. Repeated public opinion polls bear thisout.
A January 2007 Peace Index poll, forinstance, found that voters’ top concern wasgovernmental corruption, which received a weighted grade of 31.5 out of100. That compared to 22.1 for the second-place issue, rehabilitatingthe Israel Defense Forces after the previous summer’s Second LebanonWar; 20.1 for reducing economic gaps; 15.4 for reducing crime; and amere 10.8 for making peace with the Palestinians. An October 2010 Peace Index survey similarlyfound that only one-fifth of Jewish Israelis deemed peace with thePalestinians the country’s most pressing issue; the other four-fifthschose various domestic concerns.     And it’sworth noting that these polls may actually skew the results in favor ofthe peace process by omitting some of the most important domesticissues from the list of choices. The October 2010 poll, for instance,gave respondents six choices, two of which were strengthening eitherthe state’s Jewish character or its democratic character.Unsurprisingly, these ranked last. But the choices did not includeimproving the state’s failing education system, though this is a keyconcern for many Israeli parents and has received considerable mediaattention in recent months. Nor did they include rising crime rates,another issue that has garnered considerable media attention.
The reason why most Israelis view domestic concerns ashigher priority than the peace process is simple: They see no chance ofactually reaching a peace agreement in the foreseeable future. TheOctober 2010 poll, for instance, found that two-thirds of respondentsdeemed Israeli-Palestinian talks unlikely to produce an agreement “inthe coming years”; that finding has been roughly constant for years,regardless of which party headed the government. That is becausetwo-thirds of Jewish Israelis also believe that most Palestinians “havenot accepted Israel's existence and would destroy it if they could,” asthe October 2007 Peace Index poll put it. Andas the pollsters noted, “this finding is not exceptional; similar rateshave been found in the Jewish public since the mid-1990s.”
Having concluded that Palestinian intransigencecurrently makes a peace agreement unobtainable, most Israelis wouldrather the government focus on problems it could solve - namely,domestic ones. But leading politicians of almost every party, fromPrime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Likud to opposition leader TzipiLivni of Kadima, have instead consistently neglected domestic issues infavor of an obsessive focus on the peace process. That is certainlytrue of Yachimovich’s main rivals for the Labor Party’s chairmanship.
All three of the party’s declared candidatesfor leadership - Herzog, Ben-Eliezer and Avishay Braverman - weremembers of the current government until they resigned last week, andall three held portfolios directly relevant to major domestic issueslike poverty and employment: social affairs; industry, trade and labor;and minority affairs, respectively. Yet instead of tackling theseissues, they spent most of their time in office threatening to quit ifthe government did not make progress toward an Israeli-Palestinianagreement.
Yachimovich, in contrast, did focuson domestic issues - and whether or not one agrees with her proposedsolutions, she clearly got results. To take just one prominent example,her bill to reduce inequality by capping executive pay throughlegislation garnered enough Knesset and public support that thegovernment was forced to respond with its own, more market-basedproposals to curb excessive executive pay.
Laborvoters are evidently excited at the prospect of a party leaderinterested in addressing burning domestic concerns rather than wastingall her time and energy pursuing an unachievable peace agreement. Thequestion now is whether other Israeli politicians will finally get themessage.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.