The Labor Party is fast advancing toward the end of its historic role and its descent from Israel's political stage. The coalition negotiations being conducted by Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak position Labor with the unpleasant choice of deciding between suicide and execution. If Labor joins the Livni government, it will atrophy and be swallowed up as a faction inside Kadima. If it remains outside and leads to elections, its supporters will punish it for bringing Benjamin Netanyahu back to power.
Labor no longer has any message that makes it unique in the public's eyes; it has no flag to fly for voters to see. Kadima has robbed it of the rubric of security activism accompanied by diplomatic moderation, and has positioned itself as the party that favors negotiations, as opposed to Likud, which opposes the peace process. Ehud Olmert's declarations in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he called for a withdrawal from all the territories, were more far-reaching than most statements made by Labor's leaders. Labor cannot present a more left-leaning agenda.
Even the most sophisticated microscope at the Weizmann Institute will not be able to distinguish between the ideological nuances of the two parties' politicians. In which way are Olmert, Livni, Haim Ramon and Meir Sheetrit different from Barak, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Ami Ayalon? How can we differentiate between Amir Peretz and Avi Dichter, or Roni Bar-On and Matan Vilnai? In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Barak had difficulty raising coalition demands until he found the "increase-the-budget-by-2.5 percent" formula. Sorry, what's that? How many people can grasp what that means? And who will agree to be enlisted in a struggle for nonsense like that?
The "big bang" that Ariel Sharon brought about by setting up Kadima at first seemed like a death blow to Likud, which lost a considerable number of its leaders and shrank to 12 seats in the Knesset. The result, however, was the opposite of what had been expected. Likud, which stuck with its messages, was rehabilitated in the opposition while Labor continued to fade away. Like a lethal virus, Kadima simply took over its coalition partner's assets - its political and security platform, its system of primaries, the advancement of women, and most important, the core of its voters and donors. The Ashkenazis and the rich who fled Labor because of Amir Peretz into the open arms of Kadima and the Pensioners Party have meanwhile fallen in love with Livni and do not want to return. Labor has nothing to offer them.
How is it possible, people shriek, that a fashionable party of deserters like Kadima will be the heir to Labor with all its credit for building the country? When the moment of truth comes, those who still believe in the world of bygone days will try to calm us, and the public will wake up and return to its roots. Labor, they remind us, managed to survive the revolution of the Democratic Party for Change in the 1970s, and will survive Kadima as well. But the surveys say something else, positioning Labor on the same shelf as former popular brands like Atta textiles, the Hamegaper shoe and rubber factory, and Channel 1 television, which once upon a time were hits with Israeli consumers.
Political parties are not forever. Who remembers the General Zionists that led the "civilian camp" during the pre-state Yishuv period and who presented an alternative to David Ben-Gurion's Mapai after the establishment of the state? Or the Progressive Party, which controlled the Justice Ministry for many years? Or Mapam with the settlement movement, socialism and the brotherhood of nations? All of them vanished and were swallowed up by other parties, and that apparently is what will happen to Labor.
This phenomenon is not unique to Israel's stormy multiparty system and is familiar in countries where the regime is more stable. The Liberal Party was Britain's leftist party for around 100 years and gave the public leaders such as Gladstone and Lloyd George. Even the legendary Churchill defected to it from the Conservative Party for several years. And then suddenly, shortly after World War I, the Liberals faded away and their place was taken by the Labor Party.
There were numerous organizational, personal and social reasons that led to the sinking of the Liberals in Britain, but their moment of truth is reminiscent of the dilemma in which Barak finds himself now. The elections of 1923 positioned the Liberal leader, Herbert Henry Asquith, as kingmaker. It is said that he preferred to place the regime in the hands of the Labor Party's inexperienced leaders in the hope that they would soon fail and the left's voters would return to the Liberal Party. In that way, the path was paved for the first Labor government of Ramsay MacDonald, which indeed did fall a short while later. But it managed to hold on to its voters in the opposition and defeated the Liberals in the 1924 elections.
In the Israel after Olmert's resignation, Barak is the one who can anoint kings, and he has to choose between Livni and Netanyahu, between the inexperienced star and the ideological rival. Whichever way he chooses, he will be able to remain defense minister, but he will sacrifice his party. Labor has only one chance left to be saved from political burial. Only if Livni turns out to be a weak leader who has difficulty making decisions, and if she disappoints her supporters, will people perhaps go back to voting Labor.
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