Whatever happened to the great Labor Party that ruled Israel with a steady hand for decades, led by icons such as David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir? How did it turn into a shadow of its former self, incapable of winning an election time after time?
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For many years now the Labor Party has not been what it was before Likud’s electoral victory in 1977. In those days its leaders had no illusions about the threat Israel faced from its Arab neighbors. Although seeking peace, it was risk-averse. After Menachem Begin attained a peace treaty with Egypt by trading all of the Sinai for peace, the Labor Party became a staunch advocate of reaching peace with the Syrians and the Palestinians by imitating the model that Begin had adopted with Egypt, a return to the 1949 armistice lines in return for peace.
That approach was in tune with the mood of the majority of Israelis. Begin had proved that peace with Arabs was possible, and after the heavy casualties suffered during the Yom Kippur War, major territorial concessions seemed a price well worth paying to avoid another war.
Yitzhak Rabin led the Labor Party to victory in 1992 over a Likud led by Yitzhak Shamir, who was seen as unwilling to give an inch. With Shimon Peres he signed the Oslo Accords with the leader of the PLO, Yasser Arafat. The majority of the public supported this move, having confidence in Rabin and in the expectation that the move would lead to peace with the Palestinians. Rabin also initiated negotiations with the Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, prepared to strike a deal in the Golan Heights, similar to Begin’s deal with Anwar Sadat in the Sinai.
Led by Ehud Barak, Labor returned to power in 1999. He promised a “new dawn” for Israel – getting the Israel Defense Forces out of Lebanon and making peace with the Syrians and the Palestinians. On taking office he ordered the IDF out of Lebanon, began negotiations with Assad, prepared to concede the Golan Heights, and offered Arafat the West Bank and Gaza.
Although the mood in Israel was largely supportive of his initiatives, they disappointed. The withdrawal from Lebanon brought Hezbollah to power in Lebanon and resulted in the Second Lebanon War. Arafat rejected Barak’s offer, and in the second intifada over a thousand Israelis were killed. No deal was reached with Syria and today most Israelis do not regret that.
And there was another disappointment on the way, the disengagement from Gaza, even though it was not the Labor Party, now considerably reduced in size, that led the way. It was Likud’s Ariel Sharon – who afterward founded Kadima, which was joined by many from the Labor Party, including its former leader Peres – who took the drastic step of forcibly removing more than 8,000 Israelis from settlements in Gaza and northern Samaria. That move, backed by Labor, at first also enjoyed the support of a majority of the public. It too turned into another disappointment – Hamas took over Gaza and rockets started falling on Israel.
This succession of peace initiatives disappointed and led to a change in the public mood, and this is what is largely responsible for the extended reign of Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu. The Labor Party continued to call for new initiatives and offers of territorial concessions. Labor is seen by many as constantly refusing to face the hard facts of the Middle East, and trying to sell illusions. The polls showing that most Israelis favor a “two state” solution only indicate that in the long run they prefer to distance themselves from the Palestinians, but this doesn’t lead to support for risk-taking initiatives now.
To many it looks like Labor’s leaders continue to be ideologically wedded to the “land for peace” formula regardless of the facts on the ground. Thus they have lost support over the years to parties that seem to take a more realistic view of the situation.
Time will tell whether Labor’s newly elected leader can repair the damage incurred over many years or will continue to lead the party to another defeat in the next election.