Analysis

One of Israel's Most Effective Politicians Just Quit, Proving Labor's at the End of the Road

In an extraordinary moment of honesty, Shelly Yacimovich admits the fire within the party has been extinguished, giving her no reason to stay

Shelly Yacimovich announcing her departure from politics at the Knesset, Jerusalem, July 16, 2019.
Oren Ben Hakun

The fact that Shelly Yacimovich, a leader and symbol of Labor for the last decade and a half, has decided to take a break from politics is another sign of the desperate condition of the party as another election approaches. “I can’t do it anymore,” she wrote, paraphrasing Menachem Begin. But it isn’t just her. The Labor Party itself can’t do it any more, not on its own.

Two weeks since Amir Peretz was elected as its new chairman, hopes have been dashed. Labor isn’t looking likely to regain the power it lost in the April election and it’s becoming clear that it won't be able to run alone in September. To save itself from oblivion, it will need help from Meretz, which is itself teetering on the brink. Yet even if they join forces, the polls predict that they would win about 12 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, which is meaningless.

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Yacimovich preferred to spare herself this predictable experience. What could she expect after the September election? Even in the extremely unlikely scenario that the Labor Party finds itself in government, somehow, the chance that she would receive a ministerial portfolio is vanishingly small. She’s fourth on the party list, and would be 5th or 6th if Labor and Meretz merge. Even if they got some portfolios, she couldn’t expect one.

With unusual honesty, without glossing things over, Yacimovich described the lethargy, the internal fire that went out and the pessimism that have consumed her after 13 years of parliamentary activity. Her personal horizon has narrowed to a pale, flickering path of possibly chairing some committee at best, which is hardly challenging or interesting to her. Under the circumstances, she had no goal and no expectations.

Leaving is full circle for her. Shelly Yacimovich came to the Knesset in 2006 with the help of the new chairman at the time – none other than Amir Peretz  – and leaves after his reelection. Over the years they cooperated, fought bitterly, raced against one another, she won, he was hurt and abandoned ship, then he came back and they made up and then fought again and then reconciled again. She must be weary of this saga as well.

Amir Peretz at a Labor Party conference, July 9, 2019.
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

If she wanted to help Peretz, she would have stayed until after the September 17 election and contributed her part to the campaign. But it turns out that her altruism has boundaries. Peretz is so full of himself that he will manage by himself.

There’s no question that for decades, she has been one of the most effective politicians in the Knesset, more than many a minister who came and went without leaving a mark. She will be missed. Because she’s a woman, the loss is all the greater; and her status as a pillar of the social-democratic left in parliament means the situation after her departure will be even worse.

Yacimovich’s effectivity was measurable not only in the roles she fulfilled, the most senior of which was leader of the opposition, but in her public status, her insistence on her principles and the laws she enacted. Her tongue was sharp as a sword. Many of her colleagues experienced it themselves, which didn’t make her the most likeable or amiable person in the Knesset.

Thirteen years in parliament – yet Yacimovich never held an executive function. She rejected offers to serve as a minister under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu several times, including an offer for the finance portfolio in 2013. She claimed not to regret it but that may have been her biggest mistake. The time-out she is taking now could last for one term, or forever, but she will always be a political animal. She was before joining the public arena.