Reality Check: Nursing Labor back to health

Soul-searching is needed If the party is ever going to return from the depths to which it has sunk under Barak’s leadership.

Labor Party 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Labor Party 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
While it’s particularly true in the Israeli context that “all politics is personal,” Labor MK Daniel Ben-Simon is nevertheless guilty of gross exaggeration when blaming Ehud Barak for Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ending up in intensive care last week, sedated and on a respirator.
According to Ben-Simon, it was Defense Minister Barak’s decision to split the Labor Party that brought about the 75-year-old’s sudden hospitalization. With Barak quitting Labor without him, Ben-Eliezer was forced to resign as industry, trade and labor minister. Talking about seeing Ben-Eliezer in the Knesset the day after Barak’s maneuver, Ben-Simon said: “He couldn’t take it. He was like a Shakespearean hero, left lying on the floor. After he had eliminated his rivals, he too finally was eliminated.”
Truth be told, if there’s any politician less likely to be seen as a wavering Hamlet or isolated King Lear, it’s Ben-Eliezer. In fact, he represents the zenith of the “hail fellow well met” style of politician, always happiest among people, willing to do a favor here, make an appointment there. Barak himself relied on this when making his political comeback; without the support of the party machinery (controlled by Ben-Eliezer), Barak would never have been elected Labor’s leader a second time.
So while Ben-Simon might be correct in stating that Ben-Eliezer had plenty of reason to feel betrayed by Barak, it’s still a mighty jump to conclude that political betrayal was the source of a potentially life-threatening illness, particularly in the case of a 75-year-old who has been under the heart surgeon’s knife more than once.
BUT WHAT Ben-Eliezer’s illness should represent is the end of an era for the Labor Party – a not-unwelcome development. Despite his warm personality and selfdeprecating sense of humor – character traits which are all too rare on the political scene – Ben-Eliezer is also a symbol of all that’s wrong with Labor.
He was an enthusiastic supporter of Labor’s entrance into Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government and, until recently, a surprisingly staunch advocate for the premier, insisting despite all the convincing evidence to the contrary that Netanyahu was prepared to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
And just as damaging for Labor was Ben-Eliezer’s preference for backroom deals over ideological debate – a fact that helped Barak reclaim the leadership, a move that was eventually a fateful development for the party.
Like his good friend, deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Ben-Eliezer never realized that his time – in political terms – had come, and that it was time to make way for a new generation, with new energy and, most importantly, new ideas.
IF LABOR is ever going to return from the depths to which it has sunk under Barak’s leadership – and this is not a given – it is vital that the party engage in some deep soul-searching to rediscover its ideological roots. For too long, the Labor Party has busied itself with the question of who will lead it and less with what it truly stands for.
There is a huge underrepresented constituency in the country to whom Labor should appeal: people who want to see a fairer, more equitable society for both Jews and Arabs, a society in which the role of state-funded religion plays a less-intrusive part.
While Labor should continue to stress the importance of the two-state solution as the only formula for ensuring survival as a Jewish and democratic state, it also needs to focus more clearly on what type of society this should be. The widening social gap promoted by the economic policies of this government is just as threatening to the country’s social fabric as the continuing evils of the occupation.
In particular, the state subsidy of the economically unjustifiable haredi lifestyle needs to be addressed. No other country actively encourages a sizable minority of its population not to join the workforce.
In the past, Shinui tapped into secular resentment of the growing influence of haredim, but like so many other single-issue political parties, it eventually disappeared. Labor must seek to attract Shinui’s lost voters, offering them a way to express their dissatisfaction with the continuing capitulation of the Likud to haredi demands.
Haredi-bashing on its own, however, is not enough to rejuvenate the Labor Party, or even justify its existence, although the principle of separating religion from state must be a key plank of any new Labor manifesto. Alongside a determined push to reach a final agreement with the Palestinians, Labor needs to chart a new social-democratic path for the country, one in which the squeezed middle class and the working poor are better rewarded for their efforts.
There is a prescription for Labor’s recovery, although its return to political health will take time. The question is whether the patient will have the discipline to follow the regime it so sorely needs.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.