Whatever became of Israel's Labor Party some five months after its leader Defense Minister Ehud Barak abruptly quit to establish his breakaway Atzmaut (Independence) Knesset faction?
Wracked by infighting, fuming over being tethered to the diplomatic policies of the Netanyahu government, and headed by one of the least popular politicians on the scene, the once-dominant Labor Party seemed moribund. Barak had surprised colleagues in January 2010 by pulling out before they could oust him; taking along four comparatively right-leaning loyalists. Barak got to retain his cabinet seat while Labor ministers Yitzhak Herzog, Avishay Braverman and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer had no choice but to go into the opposition. In 2006, Labor lost several luminaries including Shimon Peres, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik to Kadima.
Now, tabloid pundits were quick to write Labor's obituary. Yediot's Nahum Barnea, doyen of left-leaning columnists, said the party had actually "died" during Barak's short failed term as prime minister in 2000 but had only now been buried. His colleague Sima Kadmon wrote that "the public doesn't believe the Labor Party can be revived." The perennially caustic Ben Caspit at Ma'ariv adjudged Labor to be "a pile of rubble." Barak had dealt Labor "the final blow" wrote another anti-Netanyahu Ma'ariv columnist Shalom Yerushalmi.
These writers had captured the popular sentiment: A poll in Yediot the day after Barak's exit found 53% of Israeli voters thought it heralded "the end of the Labor Party." Yet even then there was a glimmer of hope: the same poll revealed that Labor would manage to retain 8 of its 13 Knesset seats were immediate elections held.
Forecasts of Labor's demise appear to have been exaggerated. Since Barak's leaving the party brought back former general-secretary Micha Harish to be its temporary chairman and tasked him with overseeing Labor's revival. Tens of thousands of new members have been recruited as part of a dynamic race on for the party's leadership. David Ben-Gurion's grandchildren, Orit Etzioni and Moshe Ben-Eliezer, have publicly invested in the movement he once led. Even rudderless, recent polls continue to show the party capturing at least eight seats.
Of course, how Labor will ultimately fare in national elections (expected before 2013 when the current Knesset's term expires) will depend on what position it stakes out on the political spectrum and that, in term, very much depends on who becomes the party's new leader. The field includes MK Isaac Herzog, son of Israel's sixth president Chaim Herzog; MK Shelly Yachimovich, a former left-oriented journalist; Amram Mitzna, a rehabilitated previous party leader; millionaire entrepreneur Erel Margalit; MK Amir Peretz, another renewed former party leader and Shlomo Buhbut, a local government politician.
Labor is hardly likely to ever again become a ruling party. One reason is that its leaders and functionaries continue to shill for Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas in promoting the message that no diplomatic progress can be made because of the Netanyahu government, and not – as most Israelis believe – through any fault of the Palestinian Arabs.
Each of the leadership contenders claimed to have signed-up thousands of new members ostensibly pledged to vote for them in the September 12th party primary and subsequent run-off contest. By that yardstick, Peretz claims to have brought in the most signatures followed by Herzog and Yachimovich. Assuming the petition claims are true, Labor's membership base could emerge as the second biggest behind Likud.
With a leader – Mitzna, Herzog, Yachimovich or Perez – preliminary polling suggests that Labor could, at least hypothetically, capture 17-19 mandates. Yet when the dust settles much depends on whether the party, which still defines itself as social-democratic, can be positioned at least within shouting distance of the center-left enabling it to pick up votes from Kadima. That will not be easy.
Mitzna says outright that he's returned to politics to mobilize the "peace camp." Perez professes that he would not require the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state; Yachimovich prefers to take vague stands on security issues and to focus instead on promoting greater government involvement in the economy. Margalit supports an interim Palestinian state now along the parameters of the security barrier. Herzog has been arguably more judicious while still calling for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. All these positions are essentially out of kilter with public sentiment.
So while the obituaries were premature, for Labor to avoid being permanently relegated to the margins of party politics alongside Meretz whoever wins its September primary would be wise to navigate toward Israel's post-Oslo center.
As for Barak's new party, were elections held today, Atzmaut would not to cross the electoral threshold.
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