Tomorrow, Not the Day Before Yesterday

Labor's new members - young, enthusiastic activists who are deeply involved in society - decided that the party wasn't dead, but could serve as the base for a rejuvenation of Israel's leftist bloc.

Even if the next round of the Labor Party's leadership primary is postponed, it has already been a success. Not long ago, Labor seemed stale, tired, bruised and spineless. Half of it had been dragged into the government like a useless appendage and the other half sat suffocating and helpless in the opposition. But suddenly, when it seemed the end had come, it rose up and roared like a lion.

Yet something in the party's sociological make-up, a kind of troublesome gene it can't get rid of, may still be its undoing.

The quality of the candidates in the first round concealed this limitation. Erel Margalit, who bowed out of the race, adds great value; he has much to contribute to the party and to society. Amram Mitzna made many mistakes, but at least he dared. Isaac Herzog did not really surprise anyone, since everyone who really knows Labor knew he wouldn't fail the way the polls predicted he would.

Amir Peretz, exerting the effort that has typified him all his life, managed to restore his lost standing. Peretz was punished for his mistakes with unprecedented severity; others paid much less for greater ones. Israel's image-based politics, which dubbed him "an authentic workers' leader," still has difficulty interpreting the complex formula he proposes: a genuine and well-thought-out integration of socialism and democracy with a clear, consistent and courageous dovish stance.

Peretz and Shelly Yachimovich between them turned socioeconomic issues into the focus of the primary, an important achievement in and of itself. But Yachimovich's personal achievement is especially impressive. She forged a path through a rude, aggressive, masculine world. She developed supporters who swear by her and created an unassailable political base.

Yachimovich is a sophisticated, professional and diligent politician who managed to forge alliances in five years that would not put any of old-time Laborite to shame. For instance, graduates of the Hanoar Ha'oved v'Halomed youth group openly support her, as does the Histadrut labor federation's secretary general.

But it was more than the candidates who brought about the change. Labor's new members - young, enthusiastic activists who are deeply involved in society - decided that the party wasn't dead, but could serve as the base for a rejuvenation of Israel's leftist bloc. And this is precisely where the problem lies: Sociology is threatening to swallow up this thrilling, hopeful opportunity.

It's sufficient to look at the way the vote was split in the first round to understand the distinctly tribal nature of voting in the party. This is not just about the "white tribe" as opposed to the "periphery" (a euphemism for Mizrahim, or Jews of Middle Eastern descent ). This is about something much deeper: a longing for the day before yesterday as opposed to the politics of tomorrow.

Longing for the day before yesterday is the daily fare of the middle class in the center of the country. Its members suffer because they and their parents are not as well connected as their grandparents - the old-time Laborites with their red Histadrut membership cards. Encouraged by opinion polls predicting 18 to 22 Knesset seats, they dream of returning to their lost positions of influence.

But in their eagerness to shorten their road to power, they have been swept from the center to the right, to siding with "everybody" - that same miserable "everybody" coined by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, father of the mendacious and mesmerizing declaration that "there is no partner," which created a reality in which there is no alternative to the dead end of the right. Fearful of being branded "leftists," their enthusiasm was obliterated the night Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

But they forget that Knesset elections are two years away, and we cannot know who the prominent players will be or what issues will top the public agenda.

Even if Labor comes to its senses, the deep changes society has undergone will not allow it to reinstate its former umbilical link to the government. And it certainly won't do so if it withdraws into the tribal cultural experience that typified it in days gone by, or if it is once again dragged into a government that destroys its credibility.

Opposing these middle-class Laborites are young people from all over the country who represent the politics of tomorrow. They want to crush tribalism, open Labor up to new groups and establish a peace-seeking socialist left that will fight for democracy in a way Labor voters have never seen before - from the opposition. And they are right. Because history has shown (Menachem Begin is a good example ) that in the face of a failed government, a vigorous, focused opposition imbued with faith can generate powerful, long-term change.