The Silence of the Lambs in Labor

What is happening in the Labor Party is liable to cause despair to anyone who hopes for its revival.

Something incomprehensible is happening in the Labor Party: At the height of a global economic crisis, and at a time when the prime and finance ministers are preparing a comprehensive economic program to rescue the country's economy, its voice is not being heard. This fact is even more astonishing when you recall that those who supported Labor's entry into the government cited the economic crisis as the main reason why any party that seeks to represent the workers must be a partner in the government.

Instead, what is happening in the Labor Party is liable to cause despair to anyone who hopes for its revival: When Ehud Barak takes a break from his work as defense minister, he is busy ousting the party's secretary general, who yesterday announced his resignation; meanwhile, the "rebel" MKs are finding it difficult to accept the majority decision and have failed to understand that they are the ones who must now raise the social-welfare flag.

The decision to join the government has already been made; the question now is what Labor's contribution to economic and social policy will be. Yet it seems that both the party chairman and his opponents are leaving the issue in the hands of the prime and finance ministers. Barak's stuttering at the recent cabinet meeting on the budget only emphasizes the absence of a clear voice in the Labor Party and the labor movement on these matters.

This is a betrayal of the trust of those voters who chose Labor because they thought it represents a social-democratic philosophy. The matter is even more serious in light of the fact that one of the party's cabinet ministers is an economist with an international reputation, and one of its new MKs is a journalist who gained admiration, as well as success in the primary, because of his impressive writing about Israel's distressed population. Don't they have anything to say about the economic programs that are being formulated?

There is no question that the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation has an important role to play in negotiations over the economic program. But the fact that the party's institutions have yet to convene to provide guidelines to their colleagues in the Histadrut is highly surprising. Instead, Labor members are fighting over formalistic issues of authority. These are certainly very important to those in power, but the public is far more concerned about its standard of living, its livelihood, its savings and its tax burden. These are issues that a social-democratic party must deal with.

All this is even more depressing when we see the radical reforms taking place in the global economy. For the past 20 years, unbridled capitalism a la Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan enjoyed unquestioned hegemony, while the social-democratic left was in retreat all over the world. Here in Israel, this quasi-theological faith in market forces was represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Now it is suffering a serious crisis, and even American capitalism has recognized the need for government intervention in economic processes. Reagan's famous line - "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem" - has been proven to be an illusion.

A reawakening is taking place among social-democratic forces in many countries, and they are being listened to as they have not been for a long time. It turns out that social solidarity, not rampant individualism, is crucial for the proper maintenance of a modern, developed society. In the coming years, new economic and social policy models will be created based on the lessons of the crazy dream of unbridled competition that has mired the world economy in the present swamp.

And the Labor Party has nothing to say about all this? This is a party whose achievements served as a model for and were admired by social-democratic movements the world over. The Labor Party now has a historic opportunity for renewal. If it does not pull itself together, it is difficult to see how it will continue to exist in the future, no matter how many successes Ehud Barak chalks up as defense minister.