The Future of Labor

The future of the Labor Party is not dependent upon the identity of its next chairman, but rather on its ability to create a united leadership around a clear social platform.

The blow that Defense Minister Ehud Barak landed on the Labor Party further diminished its public stature and its parliamentary representation, but it could actually present an opportunity for the party to rejuvenate itself and really take off. This will only happen, however, if several conditions are fulfilled, the first of which is that the eight remaining Labor Knesset members stop quarreling among themselves over the party chairmanship. The selection of Micha Harish as temporary chairman is a step in the right direction.

It's not really important whether Avishay Braverman or Isaac Herzog is the next party chairman. The fact of the matter is that the choice of one candidate or another won't attract even a single vote in elections. The members of Labor's Knesset faction should also be told the following: "Dear friends, get the notion out of your heads that one of you will be prime minister in the foreseeable future." This uncomfortable truth has to be absorbed, since it is not conceivable that Labor will lead Israel any time soon.

That's a harsh judgment for a party that for decades has been the country's dominant force and has to its credit some of the most impressive successes of the 20th century, not only in building a nation and defending it, but also in creating a welfare society under difficult circumstances. There are those who try to deny this today, but the social accomplishments of the Zionist labor movement - the establishment of kibbutzim and moshavim, the emergence of the Histadrut labor federation not only as a trade union but also as a force that controlled the wider public economy, the shaping of the health-care system based on the principle of mutual solidarity - these were all models for emulation and admiration among socialist workers' parties around the world.

These accomplishments have been eroded to a great degree because of the Labor Party itself, which since 1967 was dragged into an agenda in which matters of peace and security were front and center and in which the social-welfare banner was abandoned. As a result, a horrible vacuum was created in Israeli society, which became beholden to uninhibited capitalism, which ate away at the social achievements of the Zionist enterprise.

The Labor Party can raise that social-welfare banner now. It will have a future if it manages to bring together a leadership that knows how to speak the language of social issues. It must direct its attention to the weaker segments of society; develop a credible plan to reduce disparities among the country's population; show concern for the needs of large families, both ultra-Orthodox and Arab; provide encouragement for working women (and not only single mothers ); and make it easier for women to enter the workforce through tax benefits and day-care centers at an affordable cost for the average working person.

It should do what it hasn't done for years, providing realistic alternatives to the weakening of the welfare society. It should revive the Histadrut as a workers' organization rather than just one that represents the strong workers' committees and halt the trend toward privatization of public and social services. If it becomes the mouthpiece for the weaker segments of society, it will then also attract support from among those currently voting for Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, the Arab parties and even for Likud. These are people whose social interests are being neglected at the expense of nationalist or religious slogans.

Not all citizens are disturbed as is the Labor Party's present base of support, the secular, Ashkenazi social elite, who are rightly troubled by the fate of the Palestinians or the future of the settlements. These are critical issues, but most Israelis are concerned, first and foremost, about their children's future and their children's education, over how to ensure their children decent housing and to provide for their families with dignity. They are also concerned about what will happen when they themselves get old and are in need of assistance.

None of these issues has a patron in the political system. As the next chairwoman of the Histadrut, MK Shelly Yachimovich would be able to make a huge contribution to advancing these issues. Of course, that would be duller and more exhausting than public quarrels in the Knesset, but it is much more important.

The future of the Labor Party is not dependent upon the identity of its next chairman, but rather on its ability to create a united leadership around a clear social platform. In this way, it would be serving the aims of a democratic and socially conscious Israel, and in time also (probably as a junior partner ) as part of a governing coalition. Only Labor can fill that vacuum.