Middle Israel: Can Labor resurrect?

It doesn't take a Labor supporter to be alarmed by its prospective disappearance under its management.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
In several months the Labor Party will replace its leader for the eighth time in 13 years. Whether this happens before or after the early election that is likely to follow Ehud Olmert's replacement is immaterial. With polls showing Labor's already record-low following shrinking a further 30 percent to hardly one voter in 10 - the only question about the party leader is whether his removal will come as a precaution or as a punishment. When this happens, many, especially those armchair zealots who tell us from afar that we are not fighting our enemies hard enough, will foam at the mouth, as if witnessing the long-overdue exorcism of a dybbuk that has one word written all over it: Labor. Well, Middle Israelis don't see it that way. To them, even if they never voted Labor, it is still the movement that for better or worse built the Jewish state, and for decades genuinely looked after the social interests of a broad swathe of Israeli society. Since then, of course, Labor was hijacked by corrupt hacks, shallow generals and naive peace processors, but this does not mean it deserves to die. What Labor needs is a new start. BARAK IS indeed a major cause in Labor's demise. The man who as prime minister reneged on his main campaign promise, to focus on domestic issues, and made almost the entire Knesset, cabinet and even his personal staff abandon him in despair, has forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Last week he offered a fresh reminder of his arrogance, with a clumsy attempt to change the subject, which is his incompetence, to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's name and gender, which he apparently thinks disqualify her to rise at 3 a.m. and deal with an emergency. Well, I don't remember whether it was dawn, noon or dusk when Barak got the phone call in fall '01 about Hizbullah's capture of three soldiers off Mount Dov, or whether it was winter, spring or autumn when Barak showed up for the Shepherds-town talks with Syria despite Hafez Assad's insulting dispatch of his foreign minister. And I don't remember whether Barak was left with 50, 40 or 30 percent of the Knesset when he offered the Temple Mount to Yasser Arafat. I just know that in all these cases Barak all alone made decisions that the rest of us later lamented. So who is he trying to impress now with all this bravado about knowing how to make decisions under pressure? Moreover, what was he insinuating about Livni: that she can't take that early-dawn phone call because she is a woman or because she wasn't a commando? Evidently, after all these years Barak still thinks the premiership is about crisis management. Yet for that, prime ministers have generals who await their inspiration and direction, such as, for instance, Margaret Thatcher displayed when the Falklands were invaded, and Barak lacked when soldiers were captured into the Lebanon he had just evacuated. If Labor's non-leadership under Barak needed more substantive proof, it was offered in this week's budget brouhaha, in which he tried to defend our bottomless defense budget. In 1985, when the national interest demanded a deep cut in defense spending, Yitzhak Rabin delivered it, because he understood his job was to defend the taxpayer, not the generals. With a global recession looming and local layoffs budding, this is also no time for a leader to come to the taxpayer hat in hand. Had he been inspired, Barak would have actually imposed austerity on the IDF, whose non-combat lawyers, engineers and doctors are paid 15, 50 and also 100 percent more than their civilian equivalents, besides getting budgeted pensions for decades; a sergeant-major who retires at 45 receives a monthly NIS 7,500, for instance. In all, Barak's IDF spends NIS 4.2 billion annually on pensions, four times what it spent two decades ago. Evidently, the army that underperformed in its last war spent too much on featherbedding, a distraction that is precisely the defense minister's job to both detect and undo. Add to this the hedonistic Barak's emotional distance from the downtrodden his party purports to lead and the revelation about his PR-agent wife's hastily shelved plan to exploit his political connections for a business enterprise, and you get the public's revulsion with Labor. But what comes after Barak goes? Can Labor ever stage a comeback? The answer is yes - big time. LABOR CAN have a future, provided it returns to stand for values. There is room in Israel for a social democratic party that represents the working and middle classes while displaying the simplicity, balance, pragmatism, personal example and can-do spirit for which Labor once stood. True, for that to happen, Labor must first unseat its mandarins and change its primary election system, which is vulnerable to hacks' manipulations. And yes, Labor's breakthrough will not come as long as its leaders refuse to say, publicly, loudly and for the record, that the Oslo process, their main political move since the 1985 austerity plan, was a bad idea. Yet at some point all this will happen, and Labor will be in a position to storm the electoral mainstream with a vision of social compassion, political reform and diplomatic pragmatism. Surely all this would best be led by someone who was removed from Oslo, someone who has actually built something in the spirit of Ben-Gurion's legacy and someone whose domestic vision blends economic prudence with social solidarity and political reform. Labor actually has such a man in the current Knesset: Finance Committee chairman Avishay Braverman, the humbly born economist who built a sterling university in the middle of the desert, not far from Ben-Gurion's grave. Braverman had nothing to do with Oslo, on the budget he is identified with none of Amir Peretz's populism or Barak's militarism, and on reform he is an outspoken advocate of a regionally elected legislature and a presidential executive. Braverman also knows how to appear in public, and is a rare example of an accomplished professional who actually left a thriving career to join politics. He will bring more votes than any other Laborite out there today. Still, Labor won't crown Braverman just yet; it must first taste just a few more grapes of the public's wrath. Evidently, the way Labor hacks see it, we who yell to the pollsters that we will never in our lives vote Barak just don't know how good his grapes taste.