Reality Check: Labor's crisis is an opportunity

A clear and attractive liberal social and economic policy will help Labor distinguish itself from Kadima.

barak victory 248.88ap (photo credit: AP)
barak victory 248.88ap
(photo credit: AP)
Ehud Barak's remark this weekend that he does not "understand the obsession [inside the Labor Party] to go into opposition" unfortunately underlines the fact that while the Labor leader might be a great military strategist, he has never managed to translate these skills into the political realm. Just days before last month's election, Barak conceded the inevitable when he admitted that Labor had no chance of winning and that all that remained was for the party to win a respectable number of seats so it could become a major player in the next coalition. If you want me as defense minister, Barak proclaimed, Labor needed to get at least 20 seats. It didn't, but instead of Barak heeding his own analysis and taking Labor off into the opposition straight away, he began to hold talks with Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu. The arguments against Labor joining an extreme right-wing government headed by Netanyahu and comprising the Likud, Shas, Israel Beiteinu, United Torah Judaism, Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union are clear; there can be no coalition guidelines fuzzy enough, even if Labor were to swallow all its principles, to allow the one-time leader of the peace camp to join the most intransigent, xenophobic and hostile to the rule of law government in Israel's history. If Labor is to save itself, and this is very much an open question despite the party's leading role in the country's history, it can only do so from the back benches. Even then it won't be easy, given the presence of Kadima as the largest opposition party in the next Knesset. Labor desperately needs time out of government to understand why, within the space of a decade, it has fallen from being the leading party to the country's fourth-largest. Joining a Netanyahu-led government now, even if it could just possibly be argued that this was in the national interest due to the existential threat from Iran and the global economic crisis, would only ensure a postponement of the party's total collapse and disappearance from the political scene. LABOR NEEDS both to redefine itself and delineate where its future votes are going to come from. Having lost out to Kadima in even the kibbutz and moshav sectors last month, it is clear that there is no Labor bedrock on which the party can rely. While in one sense this is a truly frightening position for Labor to be in, it also provides an opportunity to chart a new direction based on, but not shackled to, the values of the past. Just as the British Labor Party, under Tony Blair's leadership, disengaged itself from the stranglehold of the trade unions and unrealistic policy platforms and transformed itself into the natural party of government for the last decade, winning three elections on the trot, so too must Israel's Labor Party. This first of all means a new party leader. The word "new" counts out Amir Peretz who, for reasons best known to himself, still sees himself as a potential, second-time around leader despite his disastrous performance as defense minister in the Second Lebanon War. The next leader must be someone who can offer a vision for the future and not someone wanting to relive past glories. Out of the present, minimalistic list of Labor MKs, that counts out Barak, Peretz, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, and Matan Vilna'i, leaving, as the most realistic contenders, Ophir Pines-Paz, Isaac Herzog, Avishay Braverman and Shelly Yacimovich. A NEW leader, however, is not enough without a new message, and Barak's last service to the Labor Party before stepping down must be to set in motion a process of self-examination through which the party will begin to hammer out its policies for the future. Given the global economic crisis and the clear failure of the totally free-market approach, Labor should seek to sharpen its social-democrat identity, but without frightening off the middle class. Yacimovich's desire, for example, to link Labor exclusively with the economically downtrodden will neither bring votes from the haredi or Arab sectors, the poorest groups in the economy, nor attract the progressive middle class, who are Labor's natural electorate. A mixed economy approach, in which the government plays an important role without stifling business, has to be the direction for Labor. It should also seek to lead the battle for a more open and tolerant society, ending the monopoly of the Orthodox over issues of personal status. Civil marriage should not just be an issue for those whom the rabbinate do not regard as Jews but for any Israeli Jew who wishes to marry without the involvement of the religious establishment. One of the reasons for Meretz's abysmal showing at the polls was its total concentration on the inequities of the occupation at the expense of civil rights, and particularly the issue of religious pluralism. A clear and attractive liberal social and economic policy will also help Labor distinguish itself from Kadima, which will be another major challenge of opposition. As there is little to separate the two parties on the diplomatic front, given their agreement over the need for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it is vital that Labor succeed in staking out a clear identity and not end up playing second fiddle to Kadima. Here Labor might have some luck, as Kadima is not a party built for opposition, and the chances of a breakaway faction headed by Shaul Mofaz returning to the Likud, cannot be counted out - provided of course, that Barak has not first led a breakaway Labor faction into a suicidal alliance with Netanyahu. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.