Israel's Labor Party Must Go to Work

To be an effective opposition party, Labor must offer both criticism and detailed policy alternatives that champion its social-democratic values.

Now that it's clear the Labor Party will lead the opposition, the party must make several decisions about strategy. The natural tendency is to focus on criticism of the government without offering detailed alternatives – which is what Tzipi Livni did when she headed Kadima. Such criticism may be the way to grab headlines and let off steam, but it clearly doesn't lead anywhere.

Labor must craft guidelines on several basic policy issues. This could strengthen its position as a social-democratic party attentive to social issues, particularly in light of the 2011 social protest and the fact that Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi chief Naftali Bennett have reduced "sharing of the burden" almost exclusively to anti-Haredi propaganda.

At the same time, the party must make internal changes. It's not enough that it promised to side with the government if it relaunches peace talks. That's important, but not enough.

In the socioeconomic sphere, the party must make the public aware that balancing the budget requires not only cutbacks but an expansion of tax collection among classes and organizations that have benefited from unfair tax breaks. That's what sharing the burden means.

Below are planks the new right-wing government will clearly not put at the top of its agenda. These ideas should be the focus of a fighting opposition.

Canceling tax breaks for the settlers. The bitter debate that erupted unexpectedly between Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Orthodox led to an awareness of the settlements' burden on the Israeli taxpayer. Huge investments in building the settlements have already been made, and as long as the settlements exist we must guarantee their residents the best personal and collective security possible.

But there is no reason a quarter of a million Israelis across the Green Line should continue to benefit from huge tax breaks, directly and indirectly. Although this matter was highlighted by the Haredim due to narrow party interests, Labor must fight it based on principles of social justice and an equal sharing of the burden.

This isn't a battle against the settlers but against their unjustified privileges. On this issue, Labor will have a clear alliance with Shas, which in the end is a major representative of the weaker classes. The debate with Shas on the draft should not overshadow this fact.

Introducing a just corporate tax – taxing tycoons and large firms. Recently astonishing data were published on the minuscule tax paid by several huge Israeli companies. Some tax breaks enjoyed by these corporations originated in the past in a policy of encouraging capital investment; other breaks stem from some companies' power in the government and Knesset committees. Today there is no need to encourage such investments, and it's hard to believe that Israeli firms will move to countries that are far more mired in crisis.

A gradual but significant change in these tax breaks would restore some of the equality that Israel was justly proud of in the past, and help balance the budget. Labor should appoint a team to put together a proposal for reform.

The defense budget and pensions. Pensions account for an unreasonable percentage of the defense budget. Israel's policy that most of those serving in the standing army retire at a relatively young age is justified, and those who leave should get help finding a place in the civilian sector.

But the situation where most veterans join the civil service, public companies or lucrative leadership positions in the private sector and keep receiving generous army pensions creates discrimination. Anyone discharged from the standing army must know that when he reaches retirement age his army pension will be guaranteed, but generous pensions should not be paid for life beginning at 40 for those who receive a fair wage at work.

Such privileges may be suitable for certain South American countries or military dictatorships like Mubarak's regime, but they have no place in a democracy. Of course, such reforms involve complex legal issues. But the subject must be put on the agenda to save the economy hundreds of millions of shekels annually – and prevent a sense of injustice.

Each of these subjects is sensitive and has electoral implications. But reasonable guidelines for reform are a vital alternative to across-the-board cuts in spending on education, health and welfare – almost certainly what the government will propose. Social gaps should be narrowed by reducing the income – and tax breaks – of three of Israel's most subsidized sectors: the settlers, the giant corporations and former  officers in the Israel Defense Forces. These steps are just and will prove popular.

Meanwhile, the Labor Party needs internal reforms.

A move toward canceling the primary. The latest reports about vote contractors in Labor, even if this is legal, reflect something rotten in the process of choosing candidates. When communities with strong family and clan loyalties have unreasonable power in a primary, democracy is undermined. This also keeps high-quality groups without such tribal connections away from political life.

A team should be formed to examine methods based on parties' experiences in other parliamentary regimes. A rich literature exists on the subject. The team could submit proposals within six months to the party institutions, which would craft tools for implementing reforms. This move could also renew the meaning of membership (rather than registration) in the party and revive the party branches.

Forming a leadership team. Since Shelly Yacimovich was elected chairwoman, she has revived the party in many ways and attracted young people, but sometimes she lacks judgment. She doesn't consult enough and focuses almost exclusively on her media appearances. But no one, however talented, can be an expert on everything. Therefore Yacimovich must appoint people to head specific teams – not exactly a shadow cabinet but an expansion of the party leadership's profile beyond the chairwoman.

Such internal reforms won't be easy and probably will face opposition in a party stung by internal conflicts in recent years. But these conflicts can be turned into constructive pluralism.

One can differ with Yacimovich's decision to remain in the opposition, but opposition doesn't only mean saying the opposite of what the government is doing. Opposition means trying to set an alternative public agenda. This is done through criticism – but also by providing clear alternatives.

Moti Milrod