Meet Labor's Shelly Yacimovich and Her Vision for Israel

Is the Labor chair a genuine alternative for a center-left bloc? Would her economic plan wreak havoc on the country? Is she truly a supporter of the settlement movement? A few possible answers.

Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit

I meet Shelly Yacimovich at the counter of a wine bar in Tel Aviv. We have a history: We are not friends, but have known each other for a long time and share a number of values. I supported her when she was running for leader of the Labor Party, because I thought she was the only one who could revive the historic party that Israel needs so badly.

But after Yacimovich's election in 2011, I was sorry to see that she wasn't building a worthy leadership team and wasn't forcefully promoting the idea of a credible peace policy. Her Labor Party isn't exactly the 21st-century Mapai (Labor's historic forerunner ) I had dreamed of.

So, as we sit over a glass of red wine, I try to understand whether the candidate I supported in the past is truly the right candidate. Does Shelly have it? Is she the true center-left alternative to Prime Minister Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc?

In at least one sense, Shelly has it. She is intelligent and ideological, and she has the inner fire that's required. As she sees it, Labor is the only party that is still trying to replace Bibi, and she herself is the only leader who is challenging him. In her view, both Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid are already on the way to entering Netanyahu's next government. Lapid says so explicitly, but it could happen to Livni, too.

In contrast, Labor under Yacimovich is the leading challenger party, and the ultra-Orthodox may also be happy to hook up with it - circumstances permitting. The probability of a Shelly-threatens-Bibi scenario is low, but it's the only scenario out there other than four more years of the right wing. So if there are clear-sighted people in the center-left, they should overcome their inhibitions about Labor or about the party's leader and vote for the only true alternative in the field.

Will Yacimovich join a Netanyahu government the day after the election, I wonder. She is very cautious on this subject: She does not want to lose the votes of those who want her in the government, and does not want to lose the votes of those who want her in the opposition. However, my impression is that the probability that the next government will be a Likud-Labor one is not high.

A couple of days after we meet, however, Shelly reaches a dramatic decision: The Likud of Elkin-Feiglin is not the Likud she could have worked with, she says. A prospective Netanyahu-Bennet government is bound to inflict major damage on the rule of the law, and on basic democratic values. Yacimovich will not be a part of such a government. The election campaign has now begun again - and it's a head-to-head fight between her and Netanyahu over Israel's moral image.

Healing society

Before the meeting with Yacimovich, I spoke to a number of economists, who tore Labor's ambitious social-economic platform to shreds. Some argued that it was irresponsible, others that it is divorced from reality, some that it would be calamitous for Israel. How would Shelly finance the billions she has earmarked for the healing of society? The deficit she will create will bring about a loss of confidence in the economy and deprive it of its resilience. The result: zero growth and mass unemployment.

Only Avi Tiomkin took the opposite view. The hedge funds adviser, who predicted the global crisis of 2008, thinks Yacimovich is in fact reading the post-crisis economic map correctly. As he sees it, in the new world in which we are living, greatly expanded state activity is necessary to support the shaky market. Accordingly, it would be good to double the budget deficit, with the Bank of Israel financing it, as other central banks do. Not only is Yacimovich promoting the right social-welfare policy, Tiomkin told me: She is the only player in the arena who is capable of coping with the economic challenge Israel is facing by means of significantly enlarging government expenditure.

And Shelly herself? Knowing my limitations, she does not talk to me about numbers and deficit percentages and budgetary billions. She talks Zionism to me. Her burning feeling is that the great failure of the generation to which both of us belong is that we stopped "doing ideology." Our last great act was the 1982 demonstration against the massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.

Since then, she says, our ideas have ground to a halt. We had children and we built our home, and here and there we did something on behalf of some lofty ideal. But we did not notice what was happening to our society over the course of 30 years. We did not notice that the state was wrenched from us - that it was privatized and we were left without it.

Accordingly, she is out to restore a relevant ideology to the center of our life. For her, renewing Zionism is the main thing. After all, there have been some astonishing achievements here.

For example, there was preventive medicine here that gained world renown; it brought about a decline in infant mortality and led to higher life expectancy by means of wonderful services such as well-baby clinics and programs involving nurses in schools. But while we were busy with ourselves and as the state receded, the well-baby clinics were privatized and the nurse service was privatized, and so were innumerable other mechanisms that had served to forge Israeli solidarity.

Thus, what is really behind Yacimovich's social-economic program and behind her campaign for the premiership is an attempt to rebuild the country. To restore to the Israelis the Zionist and social-democratic country that was taken from them.

It is important for Yacimovich to emphasize that she is not against capital and not against the owners of capital and not against the free market. She distinguishes between tycoons who used public funds to amass concentrated and ruinous economic power, and industrialists who built factories and created jobs and advanced Israel. As a social democrat, she says, she advocates a competitive free market alongside a state that bears moral and social weight. And the big workers unions? Is she not a hostage of the big workers unions?

It would be very convenient for Yacimovich to cast off those political millstones, but she truly believes in organized labor. She doesn't want the employees of the banks to become contract workers just so Shari Arison's profit margin will grow. She lists a series of successful plants that have strong workers unions, and she protests the phenomenon of wild incitement against unions that seek to protect the wages, honor and welfare of the working person.

But you are lenient toward the settlers, I challenge her. You also cooperate with the Haredim. Your refusal to come out against those two population groups makes you an anathema in the eyes of the left-wing population group from which you and I emerged.

Yacimovich believes that the settlement project is a mistake. She believes that the Clinton map of December 2000 is the right one, and that at the end of the day Israel will retain the settlement blocs in which 80 percent of the settlers live. But she has no intention of fulminating against settlers and Haredim. She does not think such fulmination is useful and she does not think it is right. When all is said and done, it was Israel's governments, including the left-wing ones, that established the settlements. Accordingly, the State of Israel should not persecute anyone, but rather cope with the mistake it itself made.

It is not true that Yacimovich is unaware that the present situation constitutes a ticking bomb. She is aware of the danger that exists in Israel's international isolation and in the approaching bi-national state. But Yacimovich wants to act out of empathy, not hatred.

She wants to conduct negotiations with the Palestinians without prior conditions - but also without illusions. Even though in the past she fought for a unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, she is not enthusiastic now about unilateral withdrawals. She believes in a political process that in the end will lead to the goal of two states coexisting in peace, after reaching an agreement to end the conflict and end mutual claims.

People claim that Yacimovich is malicious and that she is a new Golda Meir. As I listen to her, I see a strong woman who is not a delicate soul and not Mother Teresa. But was Ariel Sharon goodhearted? Were Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert merciful?

The allegation of being malicious smacks of sexism. But the Golda Meir allegation is serious. There is a certain Golda-like stubbornness in Yacimovich - something of a stiff-necked posture and a refusal to accept criticism. She is locked into self-righteous confidence about her rightness. At the same time, she is practical and pragmatic, and she has backbone. Even though Yacimovich is principled and ideological, she is very capable of maneuvering within a complex reality. Some of her party colleagues who are not among her supporters per se were amazed in the past year to see how much of that capability she actually has.

So, is the passionate woman sitting by my side at the bar an emerging leader? At the end of a grinding marathon, will Shelly Yacimovich really get there?

To date, she can chalk up two important achievements to her credit: She revived the labor movement and succeeded in channeling the social-justice protest into the Labor Party. Shelly's Labor is today the authentic expression of the revolution of consciousness and outlook that occurred here in the summer of 2011.

There was a moment at which it seemed possible that Yacimovich was capable of exploiting the momentum to create a dynamic of "Shelly or Bibi." But the Netanyahu- Lieberman alliance and Livni's entry into the fray threw a monkey wrench in the works. Thus, the exhausting race from which the Labor leader is taking a breather this evening now looks like a long-distance effort.

Thanks to Yacimovich, when the trendy parties fade away, Israel will still have a young, value-driven, relevant Labor Party. And there will be labor to do. Plenty of it. Massive ruins will have to be cleared.

Labor party chief Shelly Yacimovich attending the annual rally in memory of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, October 27, 2012.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich voting at the party primaries.Credit: Alon Ron

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