The morning after: Rebuilding the Labor Party

Borderline Views: Could this be Labor’s last chance to reinvent itself as a true party of opposition and eventually regain power?

Barak stink-eye 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Barak stink-eye 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
What should have happened many months ago, the decision by Labor Ministers Isaac Herzog and Avishay Braverman to resign from the right-wing government of Binyamin Netanyahu, has finally happened. The fact that they should never have agreed to have gone into this government in the first place is another matter. But they took the bait dangled by Ehud Barak, arguing that it is better to have some influence from the inside rather than to have none from the outside. In reality they have had no influence even on the inside but have, at the same time, accorded the present government a legitimacy it should never have had.
Braverman and Herzog have been doing the rounds of the Labor Party branches over the past year, preparing themselves for the election of a new party leader when that time arrives. Braverman may be the more charismatic, but by all accounts it is Herzog who has had greater success in attracting support from the party grassroots, not least because of his much longer membership in the party and his acquaintance with its backrooms and power brokers.
Both of them have skills which are lacking in many of today’s leading politicians. Braverman is an economist who, during 16 years as its president, transformed Ben-Gurion University from a peripheral backwater into a leading international institute of higher education. The present campus, ironically called Braverman City by some, is a tribute to his ability to raise funds and spread his vision of the role of the university in developing the Negev. In my dealings with Braverman during his tenure as president, he never failed to take up large-scale ideas and projects. And in his own bulldozer style, he succeeded in realizing many of them.
Herzog is a skilled lawyer, whose political pedigree is second to none. Son of former president Chaim Herzog, and grandson of the state’s first chief rabbi, Isaac Halevy Herzog (after whom he is named), he has contacts in diverse sectors of society. His time as welfare and social services minister has attuned him to many of the problems faced by grassroots Israelis, and he has developed a reputation for listening to and solving problems.
The law office founded by his father, whose senior partners have included both Herzog and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, a close confidant of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has often been described as the place where governments are put together and where real power is located.
THERE ARE other skilled potential Labor Party leaders among those who remained true to their beliefs and refused to be part of the Netanyahu government. Not least are Shelly Yacimovich, who has proved to be a tough campaigner for greater transparency and for civil rights, and Ophir Paz-Pines who has stepped down from active politics, but is seen by many party members as a person who could lead them into the future.
The four of them could, if they were to reach a miraculous agreement , collectively create a new leadership which could potentially kick start a comeback from the almost total oblivion in which the party has been existing for the past few years.
What the party does not need is another ex-army commander to be imposed upon it as its latest savior. Labor has a rich recent history of false messiahs, from Amram Mitzna to Ami Ayalon and, for all too long, Ehud Barak. It was even thought that the capture of Braverman from the clutches of Kadima just five years ago would herald a new era and that he would shortly take over the leadership.
At least in his case it was someone from civilian society and not another general who has been unable to translate military leadership into one which is governed by the rules of democracy.
Military leaders, who are experts in defense and security policy, are still needed given the continuation of the conflict, but the people with these specific skills should limit themselves to their areas of expertise rather than assume they can automatically take over the running of the country.
IF LABOR is to have a last chance of regaining power, it must understand that it has not been in power for much of the past 30 years, and that no group has an automatic right to rule. It also has to accept that the old Ashkenazi secular elites promoting values of liberal democracy can, at best, have influence only if they know how to share power with the many new groups which have become enfranchised over the past two decades – not least the haredi, Russian and Mizrahi populations. Governing is all about power-sharing and the establishment of coalitions which, despite internal differences, have some critical common agendas and policies.
A common agenda for a real opposition, the sort of opposition which is lacking today, is a real commitment to the peace process – not a commitment through words, but through actions. It requires leaders prepared to go that extra step and move toward the creation of two states, necessitating some really difficult concessions and compromises, because they understand that the long-term future and security of the country as a truly democratic state can only be ensured in this way.
There are those who would argue that neither Braverman or Herzog should get another chance given their agreement to be part of one of the most right-wing and intransigent governments in Israel’s history. But there aren’t many alternatives – had there been, they would have sprung up during the past few years.
Is this now the last chance for the Labor Party to recreate itself as a true party of opposition which can regain the reins of government a few years down the road? To do so, it must first show that it can restructure itself in an inclusive fashion, put forward a true opposition agenda and stick it out in opposition without too many internal feuds. In a country of miracles, it may yet happen.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.