Israel Needs Labor in the Government

The new reality forced Netanyahu to put negotiating with the Palestinians high on his agenda. Who in the next government will make sure those aren't merely empty words?

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Recent moves by Labor party chairman Shelly Yacimovich are threatening to make Labor irrelevant to the new political reality that resulted from last month's election. We're talking about a party that got more than 432,000 votes, yet today its voice is not being heard.

Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu lost a quarter of its strength in the election, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's position was dramatically weakened. These are facts that can't be blurred by any of his smug media appearances. The prime minister finds himself in a vise, squeezed between the pompous populist megalomania of Yair Lapid and the sanctimonious fundamentalism of Naftali Bennett.

Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah, which suffered a painful failure in the election, and Shaul Mofaz's Kadima, which managed to cross the electoral threshold by the skin of its teeth, suddenly look like serious government candidates, and everyone wants to know where Shas stands. But the "Labor Party Headed by Shelly Yacimovich" is nowhere to be found in the current public discourse.

No one can deny Yacimovich's impressive accomplishments since she was elected party chairperson: She breathed life into it, succeeded in recruiting lots of young people to its ranks, and put fresh faces on the list of Knesset candidates. Yacimovich also understood the need to restore color to the party's social-democratic cheeks and position it on the political map as a party that is not only dovish and moderate on political issues, but is also committed to the principles of social justice and economic solidarity.

But in doing so, she went a bit too far; as she was trying, justifiably, to change Labor's image as a party that is too compromising on anything connected to the Palestinians, she was accused of making it a satellite of the Likud.

When some of the media, which is not neutral on this issue, emphasized this aspect of her positions, Yacimovich panicked and announced on the eve of the election that she would not join a Netanyahu-led government under any circumstances and that she had only one aim: to replace Netanyahu as prime minister.

This declaration sealed the party's fate. Today it's clear that a significant number of people who had planned to vote Labor changed their minds and voted for either Yesh Atid or Meretz.

It's hard to understand what Yacimovich was thinking when she let loose with that unfortunate pronouncement. Did she seriously believe that she could be prime minister with no previous executive experience and that she would receive the voters' mandate for this? Did she take into account that Netanyahu might emerge from the election in a weakened state, and that linking up with a weak Netanyahu would not be the same as joining a government led by "Netanyahu, king of Israel?" Did she not understand that with this definitive statement she was strengthening Yesh Atid? That she was shackling her party and sentencing it to the opposition even before the election? In this, all her political inexperience came to the fore.

Today, there is reason to reconsider this position. This would be possible if the party's institutions were immediately convened. "Institutions" does not mean merely the Knesset faction, which also has too many inexperienced people, some of whom have big mouths, a product of their media background. We're talking primarily about the elected party convention, which should be convened immediately to consider the available options. They aren't pleasant, but they can't be avoided.

It's clear that the next government is going to have to cut the budget. Who will make sure that the cuts don't come at the expense of the weaker populations the representatives of the upper income decile, who voted for Yesh Atid, like Jacob Perry, for example? The settler representatives of Naftali Bennett?

The new reality forced Netanyahu to restore the issue of negotiating with the Palestinians to a prominent place on the agenda. Who in the next government will make sure those aren't merely empty words the annexationists of Habayit Hayehudi? Who will neutralize Moshe Feiglin and his cohorts in the Likud?

What's more and here some of the secular public will have to overcome its revulsion when it comes to negotiations. Shas could be a partner to a more moderate approach to the Palestinians. Paradoxically, it also has things in common with Labor on the social justice issue. For all Shas' deplorable opinions on the matter of drafting yeshiva students, one cannot ignore the fact that most of its voters belong to the weaker social classes, and one cannot rule out that a compromise agreement might be reached on the draft issue. Labor must decide whether efforts to impose what has been dubbed "equalizing the defense burden" should be the top priority for the next government, or whether it should be social justice and political progress.

In addition to all this, if the Labor Party would see itself as a candidate for coalition membership and would present Netanyahu with some tough demands, the very fact that it does so would pose a challenge to Yesh Atid, by forcing it to drop its vague positions on the Palestinian issue and make some clear statements. One should recall that Lapid opened his election campaign with a clever wink to the right by speaking in Ariel a fact that many of his upper-class voters prefer to forget because of his anti-Haredi populism.Labor's presence in the coalition talks is also liable to sever the ridiculous connection between Lapid and Bennett, which is a total delusion aimed at presenting the drafting of yeshiva students as the ultimate concern, as if the State of Israel has no other problems.

The justified criticism of Yacimovich has naturally led to the unleashing of Labor's classic Judgment Day weapon threats to replace the chair. The knives have already been unsheathed. But this would be a terrible mistake. Yacimovich, with her clear social vision, is an asset to the Labor Party, and it was only by once again picking up the social-democratic banner that the party was able to peel itself off the floor. It's not the chairwoman who needs changing, but the attitude: The Labor Party must get back into the political arena and join the coalition talks.

Yacimovich can't do this flying solo. The party institutions must hold a democratic debate (yes Ms. Yacimovich, there is such a thing) and examine the new reality openly, rather than making do with media announcements.In the end, in contrast to Livni's and Lapid's parties, which are not based on fully formed organizations or ideologies but on applauders and groupies cobbled together from hither and yon, the Labor Party represents a meaningful and significant historic power. It must, however, heed the will of the sovereign that is, the people and make responsible, thoughtful decisions.

During this election the voters delivered a somewhat ambiguous message, but one thing is crystal clear: The people did not crown Netanyahu king of Israel for another term. Labor should help the voters get what they want. Only a serious debate about possibly joining the government which, although Netanyahu will head it, he will no longer rule the roost can realize the people's will as expressed on January 22.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Shelly Yacimovich and Yair Lapid.Credit: Moti Milrod, Michal Fattal, Olivier Fitoussi

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