Labor Leader Snubs Socialist International, Leaving Palestinians to Dominate

As a founding member of Socialist International, the Israeli Labor party has long been an active player at SI conventions. Those days, however, have passed. Not only did Labor Party leader MK Shelly Yacimovich not send a representative to SI's meeting in South Africa this past weekend, she even instructed former MK Colette Avital not to fly to Cape Town, despite Avital's willingness to cover her own expenses.

Because of Labor's absence, Meretz members were 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 that unites parties with similar platforms, such as the British Labor Party, the French Socialist Party, the German SPD, and other western social democratic parties. The Cape Town convention was attended by 120 parties from 80 states.

A Labor Party source, who asked to remain anonymous due to the political sensitivity involved, told Haaretz that Yacimovich was invited, but, originally had no interest in attending the convention. Following pleas, she changed her mind and decided she would fly to Cape Town after all, only to make another U-turn, opting instead to visit Paris, where she met French President Francois Hollande.

Colette Avital, who serves on SI's Middle East committee, said she would fill in for Yacimovich. Avital agreed to help cut party expenses by paying for her own flight. Meanwhile, senior Foreign Ministry officials contacted various Labor officials to emphasize the importance of attending the convention, so that Palestinian and Arab representatives will not dominate. These officials also believed it would be an opportunity for Israeli representatives to meet South African President Jacob Zuma, who has not met with many Israelis recently. This could have been a good chance to ease some of the tension between the two states.

But for some as-yet unknown reason, Yacimovich opted to veto Avital's participation a mere 36 hours before her planned flight to South Africa. While in Paris, Yacimovich called Labor Party secretary general Hilik Bar and told him to instruct Avital not to board the plane.

Yacimovich's current stance continues a trend that began a decade ago, when the party stopped paying its membership fees to SI, which caused it to be 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 Sha'ath and Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative led an extremist line, demanding that the Israeli-Palestinian resolution 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 against which the Israeli peace camp is battling, but there is no apartheid. I said that categorically, this kind of talk cannot be accepted, even by Meretz people."

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

Vilan said the Labor Party abandoned the political arena. "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 shows little interest in these issues. Labor sources say she avoids meeting vising foreign officials and prefers to concentrate on social and economical issues.

Yacimovich's trip to Paris, held 10 days ago, was her first political meeting abroad. She prepared for it secretly, as if it was a military operation. Most of her party's MKs first heard about the meeting with Hollande in Paris when it was reported in the media.

Secretary general Bar denies that international affairs are foreign to Yacimovich. He said the Labor Party attaches immense importance to SI, and that Yacimovich has ordered that the party begin to repay past debts, to regain full membership status. He said that she "returned from an important convention of the French Socialist Party, and that in the near future, she will fly to Brussels, where she will meet senior officials from throughout the world. He also pointed to meetings she's had with Australian politicians and the chairman of the German SPD, Sigmar Gabriel." Hilik said Labor's absence from the convention was part of an attempt to cut costs.