Labor Unrest


Jerusalem — Give up on Oslo and Arafat. That’s what political pundits are saying the Labor Party, the dominant left-of-center force in Israel since its founding in the late 1960s, must do to maintain its political viability after leaving Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s coalition government.

One observer says that unless Labor veers from the left and its support for large-scale territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and toward the center, it will fail miserably in February’s elections. Polls show Labor losing about 10 seats, with Likud gaining about that number.

“The fundamental problem is that Labor supported Oslo and Oslo failed,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center of Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “Most Israelis, even if they supported it in the past, have second thoughts about it nowadays. As long as Arafat is around, Labor is in trouble.”

Inbar noted that the latest Peace Index in the Haaretz newspaper, an ongoing survey of Israeli attitudes toward the peace process, “showed that two-thirds of Israelis don’t think peace with the Palestinians is possible.”

“I doubt very much that Labor has a chance,” he said.

Formed in 1968 when the Mapai, Ahdut Haavodah and Labor Rafi parties joined forces, Labor quickly gained power. For the next nine years, Israel’s prime ministers were Laborites, a trend that ended with the 1955 election of Menachem Begin.

Since then, only three Labor leaders — Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak — have become prime minister. Peres was not elected; he inherited the post briefly after Rabin’s assassination. He failed to get elected once he led the ticket.

During the mid-1990s, when the Oslo peace process took hold and the economy was booming, Labor enjoyed a clear majority in the Knesset. By the time the party jumped ship last week, its members were fighting over who would assume the party leadership.

Laborites appear to agree on one thing: Peres, who is in his late 50s, is too old to take the helm.

Inbar traces Labor’s decline to its increasingly liberal agenda.

“Two decades ago, Labor was centrist,” but since then “Peres has gradually moved it to the left, and that is precisely why they have failed to win elections,” Inbar theorizes.

With the exception of two candidates, Rabin in 1992 and Barak in 1999, Labor failed to win an election.

Inbar believes that Rabin and Barak succeeded solely because they were “military men with relatively hawkish credentials.” Even at the party’s height, Laborites like Peres and Yossi Beilin were considered far too dovish.

Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan, agrees with Inbar that Labor must come up with a new formula far removed from Oslo and Yasir Arafat.

“Labor suffered a very deep blow with the collapse of Oslo, with which it was identified, and it will be very difficult for it to recover,” he said. “Their only chance: if there is a fundamental change on the Palestinian side. Someone other than Arafat needs to make a credible offer. Arafat has demonstrated that he’s never going to change, and basically the people who followed him into the Oslo process were slapped in the face.”

Steinberg envisions two scenarios: “Either the Labor Party will lay low and wait for political breakthroughs that may never happen, or it could fold and be reconstituted as some sort of a social democratic party with a centrist agenda, including economic issues.”

Indeed, while the security situation continues to be the No. 1 concern for most Israelis, the sad state of the economy is arguably just as pressing, and will undoubtedly play a key role in the coming election. According to the weekend newspapers, one in five Israelis and one in four Israeli children now live below the poverty line — nearly 1.15 million people. And unemployment hovers between 9 and 10 percent.

Labor traditionally has pushed for greater spending for the underprivileged and, as its name implies, is closely affiliated with the extremely powerful Histadrut labor union.

The union, which represents the vast majority of local and state employees, paralyzes the entire country every time it declares a general strike.

“Labor will have a future if it can get across the message that [Sharon’s] iron-fist policy is leading us to economic and social disaster,” said Akiva Eldar, a political commentator for Haaretz.

“The party needs to prove that leaving the government wasn’t just a cheap shot but an act of conscience. It needs to prove it has a political horizon, a vision.”

Just who will relay this message is an open question. Peres, at least, appears to be out of the running.

“At his age, Peres doesn’t have much of a future,” said Eldar, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets special missions from the prime minister and travels all over the world. He could use his unofficial standing in Europe and the Arab countries to build a Palestinian constituency for peace.”

That leaves Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the party chairman who just stepped down as defense minister; Knesset member Haim Ramon; and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna vying for the party’s top slot and a place on the ballot under “prime minister.”

Mitzna, a newcomer to national politics, “is personally ambitious” and “left wing,” according to Inbar. “He’s an unknown and many people don’t realize how left he is. He’s ready to talk to the Palestinians under fire, ready to go back to the Clinton plan.”

Steinberg calls Mitzna “another general with all the baggage that other generals including Barak and Sharon and now [Defense Minister Shaul] Mofaz bring to politics.” This military background “does give Mitzna more credibility than Ramon, who has no security background at a time when Israelis want their prime minister to have that experience.”

Though Mitzna has been “a relatively successful mayor of Haifa,” Steinberg said, “he has no national track record. He’s a mystery.”

Marveling at the recent turn of events, Steinberg concludes, “It tells you something about the state of the Labor Party when someone not even mentioned as a leader six months ago is now a leading candidate for the party leadership.”