Reality Check: New leader, new Labor

Time is ripe for Shelly Yacimovich to lead Labor Party back to power, but only with an economic plan that meets needs of ordinary Israeli families.

Shelly Yacimovich at Labor HQ 311 (photo credit: Gil Hoffman)
Shelly Yacimovich at Labor HQ 311
(photo credit: Gil Hoffman)
When Tony Blair took over the leadership of the British Labour Party in 1994, the party had been out of office for nearly two decades. Under the banner of “New Labor,” Blair moved his party away from the Left and into the center ground of British politics, winning an unprecedented three successive general election victories for his party before standing down as prime minister in 2007. If Shelly Yacimovich, the new leader of Israel’s Labor Party can be only a third as successful as Blair, it will still be a stunning achievement for someone who entered the Knesset a mere six years ago.
To be fair, the political circumstances in Britain when Blair won his first election were very different to those facing Yacimovich today. Blair had the advantage of competing against a deeply unpopular and stale Conservative administration that was imploding after being in power for too long, while the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post constituency system also made it much easier for an opposition party to overtake the incumbent.
But the central lesson of Blair’s success is something Yacimovich should take to heart: Blair took a brand that had long been regarded as political toxin and turned it into electoral gold through ruthless repositioning and peerless campaigning. He rid the British Labour Party of the trade unions’ stranglehold, ditched the old-style socialist rhetoric that the voters had spurned election after election and, most importantly, offered the British public a sense of hope following years of Conservative misrule.
WITH NO more than a year or so at the most before Israel next goes to the polls (no Israeli government has ever sat out its full four-year term, and Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman will soon be looking for a reason to bring down Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition and position himself as the true leader of the Israeli Right), Yacimovich does not have long to establish herself as Labor’s new leader and strike out a new path for the party.
Following the summer of social protest, Yacimovich has been given an agenda that can play to Labor’s advantage, providing she understands the cards she has been dealt. The marches and protests up and down the country were not made up of would-be revolutionaries who were seeking to overthrow the capitalistic system. Rather, they were demonstrations filled with hard-working, mainly secular, middle-class Israelis, fed up with being milked by a government that protected the interests of a small and interconnected economic elite on the one hand while subsidizing a work-shy haredi public on the other.
In the distant past, the Labor Party was the party of choice for Israel’s middle class. It stood for a moderate, social-democratic vision for the economy as well as a willingness to make territorial compromises in the search for peace. That vision brought Yitzhak Rabin to power back 1992 after Yitzhak Shamir’s failures on both the economic and diplomatic fronts made the country ripe for electoral change.
THE SAME situation is true today. On the diplomatic front, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was absolutely right when she told Prime Minister Netanyahu on Rosh Hashana that this government’s plans to build 1,100 more homes over the Green Line raised doubts that his government is interested in starting serious negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. And economically, despite Netanyahu’s protestations that he has undergone a change of economic heart, it still very much remains to be seen whether he is prepared to overhaul his free market beliefs or his willingness to continue paying political bribery to his haredi coalition partners.
If Yacimovich is to be successful, she has to loosen her ties to Histadrut leader Ofer Eini, whose main interest lies in protecting the strong labor unions in the Israel Electric Corporation, as well as the Ports Authority, who are every bit as detrimental to the economy as the concentration of economic power in a small number of families. She must turn her attention to the working middle class, families that are struggling to avoid an overdraft at the bank at the end of every month. Labor’s economic message has to be one of fairness, where people are rewarded for contributing to society and tax breaks are granted to the deserving, not to those who need them least. There should be a safety net for those, be it through lack of skills, education or illness, unable to work, but the continued state funding of lifelong yeshiva study for haredi men must come to an end.
Kadima, either under the increasingly beleaguered Tzipi Livni or her challenger Shaul Mofaz, has nothing to offer on the economic front. A party comprised mainly of Likud renegades, it has no coherent social vision for the country and this leaves room for a re-energized Labor Party to make its mark, providing Yacimovich is wise enough to widen her outlook.
Tony Blair succeeded in getting Britain’s Labour Party repeatedly elected because he convinced the British public at the time that Labour could be trusted to run the economy. The onus is on Yacimovich to convince Israelis that she too can be trusted to deliver on middle-class Israelis’ hopes for a better future for them and their children. Even moderate Likud voters, as Rabin proved, can be tempted to vote Labor if the party gets its message right.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Tony Blair was elected head of the British Labour Party in 1996 instead of 1994. The mistake, inserted during the editing process, has been corrected.