Israel's Labor Party Snubs Socialist International, Leaving Palestinians to Dominate Meet

Party leader Shelly Yacimovich decides against sending a delegate to the South Africa conference, leaving one Meretz MK to forestall a decision naming Israel an apartheid state.

ברק רביד - צרובה
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For years on end, as a founding member, the Israeli Labor party was an active player at the Socialist International conventions. Those days have passed. Not only did party leader MK Shelly Yacimovich not send a representative to the weekend meeting in South Africa, she went as far as to instruct former MK Colette Avital not to fly to Cape Town, despite Avital's willingness to cover her own expenses.

Due to Labor's absence, Meretz remained the only Israeli representatives at the convention, and could do little to soften a resolution highly critical of Israel's policies.

The Socialist International is an organization uniting parties with similar platforms such as the British Labor Party, the French Socialist Party, the German SPD, and other western social democratic parties. This year's convention in Cape Town was attended by 120 parties from 80 states.

A Labor party source, who asked to remain anonymous due to the political sensitivity of the issue, told Haaretz Yacimovich was invited, but, at first, had no interest in taking part in the convention. Following pleas to attend, the Labod leader changed her mind, and decided on flying to Cape Town, only to make another U-turn, opting instead to visit Paris, where she met with French President Francois Hollande.

Colette Avital intended to fill in for Yacimovich, especially since she also serves as a member of the organization's Middle East committee. Avital agreed to help cut party expenses by paying for her flight. Meanwhile, senior officials from the Foreign Ministry contacted various Labor officials, underlining the importance of attending the convention, and not allowing Palestinian and Arab representatives to dominate the event. Moreover, ministry officials believed it would be an opportunity for Israeli representatives to meet South African President Jacob Zuma, who has rarely met Israelis recently, and, hopefully, ease some of the tension between the two states.

Nonetheless, for some yet unknown reason, Yacimovich opted to veto Avital's participation, only 36 hours before the planned flight to South Africa. While in Paris, Yacimovich called Labor general director Hilik Bar and told him to instruct Avital not to board the plane.

Yacomovich's current stance continues a trend that began a decade ago, when the party stopped paying its membership fees to the International, which caused it being demoted to observer status. Meretz, who opted to continue paying the fees, remains a full-fledged member.

In practice, Israel was represented at the convention by former Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan. Vilan said that Fatah's Nabil Shaath and Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative led an extremist line in the meet, demanding that the resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian issue would include the assertion that Israel is an apartheid state. The proposed resolution further supported Palestine's claim to be accepted as a UN member, and called for a boycott of all products of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
"The Palestinians said that their condition in the West Bank is worse than what the blacks suffered under apartheid," Vilan said. "I told the participants that there is settler violence, and there is an occupation that the peace camp in Israeli is battling against, but there is no apartheid. I said that categorically, this kind of talk cannot be accepted, even by Meretz people."

Vilan decided to appeal to the current chairman, former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou. "I told him that they're shooting themselves in the leg, and that we will leave the convention if the word apartheid is mentioned in the resolution." Since all decision must be accepted unanimously, Papandreou began searching for a compromise. Eventually, the term was indeed dropped, but the Palestinians insisted that the call to boycott settlement products remain as part of the resolution.

On Sunday, Vilan said that the Labor Party simply abandoned the political arena at the convention. "This took place in South Africa, a country that is also a symbol," Vilan said, "prime ministers and foreign secretaries arrived from all over the world, and they all asked me: 'where is the [Israeli] Labor Party?'"

Foreign affairs, settlements and Palestinian-related issues are notably Yacimovich's weak point. She has almost no international experience, and she shows almost no interest in these issues. Sources in Labor say that Yacimovich avoids meeting foreign leaders and ministers that visit Israel, and prefers to concentrate on social and economical issues, while almost completely ignoring the issues dealing with the Palestinians and the settlements.

Yacimovich's trip to Paris, held ten days ago, was her first political meeting abroad. She prepared the trip secretly, as if it was a military operation. Most of the party MK's first heard of the meeting with Hollande in Paris, when it was published in the media.

Labour general director Hilik Bar says that the Labor Party attaches immense importance to the Socialist International, and that Yacomovich ordered that the party begin to repay past debts, with the purpose of regaining full membership status as soon as possible.

Bar mentioned that Yacimovich "returned from an important convention of the French Socialist Party, and in the near future she will fly to Brussels where she will meet senior officials from throughout the world. Recently, she has met the Australian Foreign Minister, a member of the Australian Social Democratic Party and with the chairman of the German SPD, Sigmar Gabriel. As for the international convention in South Africa, it was a particularly expensive trip, and Labor Party is currently doing its best to cut expenses."

Shelly Yacimovich during a meeting of the Knesset's Finance Committee, August 29, 2012.