Politics: The Labor Party will not die!

So says its young sec.-gen., despite week in which it suffered series of setbacks, including bids by several MKs to find new horizons.

Labor Party Woes 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Labor Party Woes 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The predicament of neophyte Labor MK Daniel Ben-Simon could be seen as a metaphor for the party as a whole. He tried his best this week to leave Labor.
But he was given the wrong impression that the faction’s other 12 MKs would sign a document enabling him to break off into a one-man faction and let him go quietly. When multiple MKs refused to sign, he was left trapped, or as he put it, a hostage in his own political home.
Similarly, Labor has long seemed trapped in its perpetual problems and Sisyphean schisms, as well as the burden of its storied history.
Its eulogizers are not just in Kadima, which hopes to permanently supplant it as the party of the center-left, but also in Labor itself. Besides Ben-Simon, rebellious MKs Amir Peretz and Eitan Cabel would leave immediately if they could. They have already started signing up dozens of supporters in Kadima’s membership drive.
But it’s not just opponents of party chairman Ehud Barak who are trying to abandon what appears to be a sinking ship. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon and Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i, who both are or were close to Barak, are seeking the chairmanship of the Jewish National Fund.
Labor is also facing a divisive leadership race, ongoing battles over when to leave Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition and a NIS 30 million debt that would sound staggering to anyone unaware that the debt surpassed NIS 100 million just a few years ago.
But the worst news for Labor this week came when a bill Cabel sponsored that would have allowed outgoing IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi to enter politics failed in the Ministerial Committee on Legislation.
It didn’t get a single vote from any of the 19 ministers on the panel, who didn’t want to give him a chance to revive Labor.
So much for the man who polls show could have restored Labor to the 19 seats it had before the last election.
Other potential saviors, such as former chairman Amram Mitzna or Histadrut chief Ofer Eini, do not seem to be hurrying to join what could be a political graveyard.
AND YET perhaps the solution to all of Labor’s problems is not a new head but a new body of young activists and voters who, against all odds, could rebuild the party and give it new life. That’s not only the hope but also the game plan of its new secretary-general, 35-year-old Jerusalem city councilman Hilik Bar.
In an interview at a popular waffle bar in the capital conducted after 11 p.m. following his usual long work day, Bar vows to prove that the party is already not only on its way to recovery, but also to restoring its former place as one of the two ruling parties.
“I don’t believe a messiah will come and save the party,” Bar says. “I think Labor is bigger than any MK, minister or even chairman. As Ben-Simon said when he joined Labor, it’s the only party we have that formed a country. I am very optimistic that the party won’t die and that no MK, minister or chairman can kill the party, even if he tries real hard.”
He traces the beginning of Labor’s tough times not to the Rabin assassination – as others do – but to its immediate aftermath, when he believes the party’s leaders misread Rabin’s legacy and refocused the party solely on the peace process and abandoned the socioeconomic, education and civic vision he also inspired.
“We became obsessed with finishing Rabin’s mission of bringing peace,” Bar says. “This made us a niche party. The public punished us for abandoning the socioeconomic issue and for not bringing peace. Our only chance to recover is if we put peace on the side and wave the socioeconomic banner, while reminding the public that on the diplomatic issue we were right all along.”
When reminded of Peretz, Bar says the fact that a socioeconomically inclined leader managed to maintain 19 seats for the party despite the many voters who went to Kadima proved that emphasizing the issue was effective. He says, though, that Peretz’s hubris in taking the Defense portfolio set the party back significantly.
“This was even more proof that Labor had abandoned the poor and could only handle peace and security,” Bar says. “The truth is that peace and Barack Obama don’t interest the average Joe.”
He has been spending a lot of time with average Joes around the country, touring Labor branches where activists have told him they had not been visited by any Labor MK in four years. But despite their frustration with such neglect, the activists he has met have told Bar they are determined to keep the party going.
“They say they won’t let the most important brand in Israel die,” he says. “They are broken from all the fights and all the attempts by our politicians to kill each other and self-destruct, but they still want to make an effort to help rebuild the party.”
BAR INTENDS to take four steps in upcoming weeks to advance the party and send a message to the skeptical press and public that it is actually on the way up, not down.
First he is using the budget available to him now that much of the debt is paid to renew activity in Labor’s branches with an emphasis on taking advantage of the student leadership that the party still dominates on campuses nationwide. He says Labor’s relatively strong Young Guard proves that the young generation is looking for an ideological party with roots.
Next month, a new Labor interactive website will be launched that he promises will be the most sophisticated of any party site in the country. It will include social networking for party activists and a large section on the party’s heritage.
Then in March, Labor will conduct a new membership drive under the slogan “Build the party that built the country.” He promises that unlike notorious drives in the past, this one will be clean and will focus on young people.
Lastly, Labor will hold a two-day ideological convention in Jerusalem in May to draft the party’s platform on socioeconomic, diplomatic, education, environmental and municipal issues. A preview of the convention took place at last month’s unpublicized meeting of the party’s executive committee, at which activists and MKs debated details of a diplomatic position paper for more than three hours.
Bar says that meeting showed him that there are signs of life in Labor and that it maintains an ideology that parties like Shinui, the Center Party and Kadima were never able to imitate.
“The Center Party and Shinui were built on their leaders,” he says. “As soon as Kadima has a leadership crisis, it too will explode from within and collapse like a house of cards, and people will come back to us and join what we are building. I am convinced that we can restore our place as the party of the center-left, and I know it won’t be easy, but I believe we will persuade everyone else, too.”