On September 21, 2011, after long, hard contractions, an opposition was born in Israel. Toward midnight, when Shelly Yachimovich was chosen to head the Labor party, democracy in Israel came to life. True, democratic elections and a democratic form of government have been in operation here for some time, but genuine democracy requires the existence of a genuine alternative. In the absence of an alternative, when the large parties propose basically the same thing, democracy is more of an illusion than reality, since citizens don't have real freedom to choose. Democracy needs an opposition.
At first glance, the country has always had an opposition. But that is just an appearance, tantamount to fraud. The voice of Kadima is barely heard; in the socioeconomic or foreign affairs-security spheres, Kadima's outlook cannot be distinguished from that of the coalition. In these two areas, Kadima - despite its self-definition as a center-left party - appears, embarrassingly, to be right of Likud.
Kadima has never promoted a socioeconomic agenda, and its attempts to ride the bandwagon of the recent protest movement are pathetic - as its slump in the polls indicates. When Kadima led the government, Israel's building activity in the territories was several times more intensive than that inspired by the present Likud government. Echoes of the war-drumming pounded by Kadima last August can still be heart; Kadima lobbied for a military operation in Gaza after terror strikes in the south. These were not just rhetorical words that would have no meaning once Kadima were to hold the reins of power. Kadima has two wars under its belt, and its maneuvering for a third war should be taken seriously.
For many years, the Labor party failed to present a real alternative. It typically appeared as a spineless party that would cling to its cabinet seats no matter what, and relinquished ideological authenticity. Labor also invested in settlement building, and it took part in Kadima's military adventures; the flag of socialism and the welfare state - which Labor once proudly raised - was brought to half-mast, as Labor betrayed its historic values.
All that has changed now. Even Yachimovich's critics will admit that she has never glued herself to positions of power, unlike other Labor leaders, and that her support for a socio-democratic agenda based on social and gender justice has been consistent, and substantiated by legislative efforts.
Unlike others, Yachimovich did not try to opportunistically exploit the social protest movement; the movement is simply in her blood. She spoke in the language of Rothschild during years when the name referred only to a city avenue, not a nationwide social protest; her election to head Labor symbolizes that at long last there is a real alternative to fill Israel's opposition vacuum.
With Yachimovich at the helm, Labor needs to make bold moves. Polls indicate it has a chance of becoming Israel's second largest party in the Knesset; should it come in second in the elections, that would represent an amazing recovery from the party's years of collapse. But Labor should not be satisfied with that scenario. It has a chance of becoming Israel's largest party. It should seek to transform itself from being seen as a militant opposition to that of the party destined to form Israel's next government.
For that to happen, three things would have to come about. First, Yachimovich needs to present a diplomatic-foreign affairs alternative, not just a new social agenda; second, she needs to show generosity toward her main rival, Amir Peretz, and immediately offer him the number two position in the party. This will prevent the consolidation of factions and curb her reputation as a northerner, and also increase her power on the periphery and among the Arab population; third, she needs to forge a political bond of some sort with the leaders of the tent camp protests, whose contribution to the formation of a new political discourse in Israel has been enormous. Should she succeed in these three respects, September 21, 2011 will be remembered not just as the birthday of an opposition in Israel, but also as the day the seeds were sown of a revolution.
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