The Death of the Party
Did Shelly Yachimovich, by avoiding matters of national security, kill Israel’s Labor Party?
“Shelly Yachimovich is a traitor.”
“She is a horrible person.”
“She is deeply cynical.”
“She is full of shit. She is the shallowest party leader that Labor has ever had.”
“For the peace camp she is the worst nightmare—a modern-day Golda Meir. She is serious about nothing.”
What is most remarkable about these comments, uttered by a collection of activists, analysts, a former Labor member of Knesset, and a top political reporter, isn’t their venom. This is Israeli politics, after all. What’s most striking—and underscores a problem much deeper than the usual back-and-forth of daily politics—is that they were not uttered by Shelly Yachimovich’s right-wing opponents, but by the Labor Party leader’s nominal left-leaning allies.
For the past 20 years, Shelly Yachimovich, now 52, has been at the center of Israel’s media and political scenes. She started out as reporter for the now-defunct daily Al HaMishmar, moved on to become the host of the popular radio program Hakol Diburim, and eventually rose to become a prominent TV anchor and host of Israel’s version of Meet the Press. A crusading and outspoken journalist, she used her perch to offer a withering critique of Israel’s embrace of neo-liberal economic policies and the growing challenges facing the nation’s middle class. She targeted Israel’s wealthy tycoons but also occasionally its settlers and the country’s religious establishment. She made her share of enemies, including, most famously, Rani Rahav, the PR flack for billionaire banker Shari Arison, who famously called her a “bad, bad, bad” woman. Indeed, Yachimovich’s politics were at one time so far from the mainstream that she once voted for Hadash, a Communist, bi-national party.
But in 2006, at the invitation of then-Labor leader Amir Peretz, Yachimovich entered politics as a Labor MK, beginning a meteoric rise through the political ranks that led to her ascendancy as Labor Party chairman in 2011. She became the first woman to helm the party since Golda Meir retired from the position in 1974, and she has spent the 15 months since she became leader focusing, with laser-like precision, on economic and social issues. She has also deliberately cultivated a darker, more fearsome image in order to play against gender stereotypes. As a close Labor ally said to me off the record, “She is not attractive, but she radiates toughness. She will cut someone’s throat if she needs to.”
Yachimovich—who is credited even by her critics for revitalizing the Labor Party, returning it to its social democratic roots, reforming an ossified political structure, and making the party an attractive alternative for young voters—should have spent this political season as a standard-bearer for a revitalized Israeli left. Instead, she has—with a speed that has shocked even some of Israel’s most jaded political observers—become one of the most polarizing figures in Israeli politics.
That’s because for all Yachimovich has done to bring attention to Israel’s social and economic inequalities, she has also refused to address the single issue that overhangs every Israeli election: security. As Ben-Dror Yemini, a prominent columnist for the Israeli daily Maariv, succinctly put it: “ ‘It’s the economy stupid.’ might work in the United States, but it doesn’t work in Israel.” Yachimovich might not be interested in war, but war is interested in her and the future of the country she aspires to lead.
For many on the Israeli left, this almost complete refusal talk about the occupation of the Palestinian territories, the future of the two-state solution, or the major security challenges facing Israel is the quintessential example of the politics of obfuscation. By trying to move the traditionally left-wing party to the center, she may win over some voters in an increasingly right-leaning electoral climate, but she is shirking her obligation to tell the hard truths about the country’s current path. While this may be smart short-term politics—Labor’s traditional image on these key questions is a political liability—its longer-term implications for the future of the peace camp in Israel are quite troubling.
On the one hand, Yachimovich’s candidacy has become an experiment as to whether a center-left politician can succeed while evincing little to no interest in the most important political issues facing the country. On the other, it’s become a broader litmus test about the political future of the Labor Party and the viability of the two-state solution it has long stood for.
In the weeks I spent reporting this profile, including one traveling in Israel, I heard more than a few negative words about Shelly Yachimovich, but inconsistent and lazy were definitely not among them.
As a member of the Knesset, Yachimovich has pushed a steady stream of legislative priorities: whistleblower legislation, greater protections for workers, extended health-care coverage and maternity leave, a law requiring greater transparency for those lobbying the Knesset, and perhaps her most popular triumph, the so-called “cashier’s law” that requires employers to provide chairs for clerks as they perform their duties in Israeli shops.
It was Yachimovich’s dedication to these social issues—coupled with great timing—that smoothed the path for her rise to power within Labor. When she threw her hat into the ring for the party’s chairmanship in the 2011 election, the country was still captivated by the J14 social-justice tent protests. “At the time things came together perfectly for Yachimovich,” says Noam Sheizaf, editor of the +972 blog. “She was on the ballot at a moment in which social justice superseded traditional conflict-related issues.”
While she is certainly not the first Labor leader to strongly push an economic agenda (Amir Peretz did the same in 2006, and to a lesser extent so did Ehud Barak in 1999), few Israeli leaders have ever done it as passionately as Yachimovich. “It’s not a secret that I put economic and social affairs at the top of my agenda,” she said in an interview with Globes magazine last October. “That’s why I entered politics. That’s the platform on which I was elected leader of the Labor Party. I didn’t try to sell other agendas. And that is the platform on which the Labor Party will return to power.” (Yachimovich’s spokesperson refused several requests for an interview.)
She backed up her words with actions. As the party’s leader, Yachimovich brought a slate of newcomers into Labor, like Stav Shaffir, a prominent, twentysomething leader of the J14 protests. And last month, she unveiled an ambitious economic agenda featuring a cornucopia of goodies for the middle class, such as a higher minimum wage, longer maternity leaves, more public housing, free day care, and even free public transportation in Tel Aviv. While the plan was pilloried by critics who said it was unrealistic and underfinanced, these initiatives are a direct response to what Gidi Grinstein of the Re’ut Institute, a nonprofit policy group in Tel Aviv, calls the “triple whammy” that has caused a massive crisis in the Israeli middle class: stagnating real income, the declining quality and quantity of government services, and the rising cost of living. It’s a crisis, Grinstein told me, that is “25 years in the making—the result of failed privatization and regulation efforts, which led to a concentration of economic power in few private hands; an electoral system that grants disproportionate political influence to select groups, such as settlers, labor unions, and the ultra-orthodox; as well as a heavy defense burden.”
Even those who have tangled with Yachimovich in the past offer praise for her social democratic focus. The No. 2 person on Labor’s election slate, MK Isaac “Buji” Herzog, who lost to Yachimovich in last year’s Labor Party primaries, was effusive in his praise, comparing her in an interview to the former Brazilian President Lula. She is a revolutionary character, he told me, with “the right set of values for Israel.”
For a party in the political doldrums and reliant on a tired and out-of-touch group of political veterans, Yachimovich was a breath of fresh air. In the Labor Party leadership election, her volunteer army of thousands both online and offline out-organized, out-enthused, and overwhelmed her opponents. Her appeal comes from both her obvious political charisma and also her compelling, nontraditional public image. When Yachimovich talks about the middle class it is not mere rhetoric: She is divorced (her son is currently serving in the army), resides alone in a small flat in Tel Aviv, and is known for riding her bicycle around town. It is a humble image quite different from that held by the current prime minister or even the majority of politicians in the country. Like her mentor, Amir Peretz, she has a down-to-earth element to her personality that is a crucial part of her political draw.
But for all that Yachimovich does, it is what she doesn’t do that has garnered so much ill will, particularly in the run-up to the Jan. 22 election. During this campaign, she has given no major speeches or comments about the occupation, about Iran, about the Arab Spring, about the future of the settlements, and so on. Unless she is asked, she has practically nothing to say about any of these issues. In her political manifesto titled Us she remarkably makes no mention of the issues that have been at the heart of Israeli politics since the country’s founding. It is the most startling element of her rise to power: She is the head of a party long associated with the vision of a two-state solution and yet has nothing to say about the existential questions that will shape Israel’s future. When asked about how she would bring about peace with the Palestinians, Yachimovich regularly mouths the platitude that she supports the Clinton Parameters from more than 12 years ago—but not much else.
It’s this position—or rather this lack of position—that has earned her withering criticism from the Israeli left. On the editorial page of Haaretz it is practically pro forma for the paper’s columnists to lacerate Yachimovich for her complete inattention to security matters. And over the past several months, as security concerns have taken on even greater prominence with Operation Pillar of Defense, the Palestinian bid for statehood in the United Nations General Assembly, and the announcement of new settlement construction in the West Bank, it has shined a bright light on the paucity of her strategy.
For Daniel Levy, a former Labor foreign-policy adviser, Yachimovich’s “lack of security focus is a result of Israelis having moved so far to the right that they have given up hope or expectation that you can move forward on a two-state solution.” It is a reflection of the recurrent argument you hear from Israelis—even those that support a two-state solution—that Israel has no partner for peace. National polling bears this out: While approximately two thirds of Israelis say they support a two-state solution, 55 percent of Israeli Jews agree with the view that a “lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians” will never happen. This pessimism about the possibility of a breakthrough has bolstered support for far-right parties and in particular Benjamin Netanyahu, who offers voters an uncompromising pledge to protect Israel’s security and avoid any settlement deal with the Palestinians that doesn’t provide ironclad guarantees against future attacks.
More than anything else, that appears to be the reason that Yachimovich has simply chosen to avoid what is clearly a losing issue for Labor and to focus on the growing cost of living and economic anxiety as a tool for returning the party to a position of power. Indeed, Buji Herzog admits that this is a highly coordinated Labor strategy. For years, said Herzog, “Labor was only identified with the peace process” and not the “core social issues” that had once defined the party. This, argued Herzog, led to disastrous election after election for Labor, including the last Knesset ballot, which saw the party score a mere 13 seats—a total that was soon reduced to eight after Ehud Barak fled the party and joined Netanyahu’s government as defense minister.
“The fact that the left was considered only a peace movement and not a social justice movement is a real problem for the left,” said Nissim Calderon, a professor at Ben Gurion University who is also on the slate for the left-wing Meretz party. “Labor and the left ignored the poor—and that undermined support for their peace agenda,” he told me. Yachimovich’s agenda, Calderon argued, is a function of the party’s desperation to win back that support and also remain relevant.
Public-opinion polling suggests that this a fairly accurate reflection of the Israeli electorate’s current mindset. A recent survey done for the Jerusalem-based think tank Molad shows that less than a third of Israelis believe that the left is able to effectively govern the country. Only 28 percent said that “the left offers constructive solutions for security challenges faced by the state.” As Herzog pointedly told me, Labor’s strategy is specifically endorsed by the party’s U.S. political consultant, Stan Greenberg, who has advised Labor Party leaders going back to Shimon Peres in 1996.
Yachimovich has proved adept at seeing this strategy through, employing a tidy bit of revisionist history when necessary. Labor “is not a leftist party and never was,” she said in November, arguing that it was always “a centrist party.” She even went so far as to recently sign Labor’s surplus votes agreement (an arrangement where surplus votes, beyond the current 2 percent threshold, are combined between two similar parties) with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid rather than Labor’s traditional partner, Meretz. The intended message was clear: Labor has more in common with the middle-of-the-road Lapid than with the left-wing Meretz. When Yachimovich is confronted with more controversial issues, like the future of settlements in the West Bank, she hews to the center or flip-flops. In 2005, for example, she complained that while “a welfare state was being obliterated here … a substitute welfare state was being established beyond the Green Line.” Yet just last year, she said that those who would argue “if there were no settlements there would be a welfare state within Israel’s borders” have “no connection to reality.”
But it is on the question of two-state solution and the Palestinians that Yachimovich’s absence from the public debate is so glaring and problematic. Despite the fact that the majority of Israelis see no partner for peace, few believe that the current status quo can be maintained forever. At some point, perhaps in the not too distant future, Israel will face difficult even existential decisions about the status of the West Bank and the more than 2,600,000 Palestinians who live there. That these issues are rarely confronted these days speaks to a disturbing national delusion among Israelis—what some call the “normalization” of the conflict—and a refusal to come to grips with the country’s long-term challenges.
For Yachimovich’s critics this is what is so uniquely galling and irresponsible about her silence. These critics see her as aiding and abetting Israel’s dangerous journey toward an uncertain and potentially unpleasant future—a frightful path toward a third intifada, international isolation, or both.
And it has wounded her politically. She has alienated key allies inside Labor and undermined her own public image. Hopes from a few months ago that Labor might get 20-plus seats in the Knesset have dimmed as the party’s poll numbers have faltered. Her refusal to talk more directly about the future of the peace process was used as a key rationale by Amir Peretz for his departure from Labor. “Yachimovich does not have the right to give up the issue of peace,” he declared at a press conference announcing his decision to join forces with Tzipi Livni, who is now filling the vacuum left by Yachimovich and threatening Labor’s hold over center-left voters unwilling to cast a vote for Netanyahu or the similarly security-allergic Yair Lapid.
Rumblings inside Labor have grown so loud that her fellow MKs and candidates have begun complaining off the record to reporters about her abandonment of “the political line.” In a withering recent op-ed Uri Misgav, a columnist for Haaretz, summed up the views of many on the left: “With her childish insistence on remaining quiet and not putting in an appearance over any act that falls outside the sphere she has defined as ‘social,’ Yachimovich comes across as irrelevant and presents Labor to the public as a niche party for trade union grievances and contract workers’ demands.”
Here lies perhaps the greatest irony of Yachimovich’s obfuscation: Even though Netanyahu’s government is well on its way to a strong win in Knesset elections, a deeper look suggests that Likud’s apparent position of strength masks real political problems. On the political side, Bibi’s recent diplomatic losses at the United Nations, fractured relations with the United States, and Likud’s move toward increasingly illiberal policies have created real political vulnerabilities for the prime minister. Where Netanyahu holds an advantage is that over the last three years Israel has enjoyed an unprecedented period of relative peace and stability, marked by a significant decline in terrorist incidents. Israelis have confidence in his ability to protect them from harm. For the many voters wary of Netanyahu, “they go to Likud because they are afraid of the left—and the left is not giving them answers,” said Yemini, the Maariv columnist. As one Israeli cab driver said to me: “Bibi fucks the poor.” But he’ll probably vote for him anyway, he added. “I trust him on security.”
To be sure, even if Yachimovich were able to make a compelling argument that Israel should take chances for peace; that the status quo represents more risks than benefits for Israel’s future; or were able to reassure voters that they could trust a center-left party to protect them from terrorism, there is no guarantee it would pave a way to victory. But that she declines to even try makes it virtually impossible to imagine a scenario in which she could ever win a majority in the Knesset. It’s like imagining that an American presidential nominee could win a national election without talking about the economy.
In the end, however, one can only go so far in holding Shelly Yachimovich responsible for this situation. It is true that she has failed to offer a center-left perspective on Israel’s security challenges, but she is not alone. Assaf Sharon, who is research director at Molad, put it to me best: “The left never took responsibility for the failure of Oslo. They have failed to directly acknowledge the security threats the country is facing. And they have all suffered as a result.”
Instead, the left has largely ceded the discussion of political issues to Netanyahu, who can argue convincingly that the right’s approach to dealing with the Palestinians has brought positive results to the lives of ordinary Israelis. That this approach takes Israel down the road to a one-state solution and is actually antithetical to the stated policy preferences of a majority of Israelis tends to get glossed over because there are few on the left willing to challenge it. To Livni’s credit she has begun to make precisely these arguments, but rather than speak for the center-left she is one of several voices all being drowned out by each other.
For Ari Shavit, Haaretz’s senior correspondent, Yachimovich’s failure is really a collective failure of the center left. “We’ve all failed,” he told me. “And that means Israelis who care about peace and democracy. We’ve spent our time in destroying each other. It’s petty and it’s pathetic.” The left “needs a new fresh constructive approach and no one came up with it,” he added.
The shifting loyalties of center-left politicians and their inability to set aside their differences to form a political movement have only made the situation worse. A combination of Yachimovich, Livni, Peretz, and Lapid could make for a strong political counter-weight to Likud—that foursome would address economic and social issues as well as offer a realistic approach to ending the occupation and resolving the conflict. But instead of uniting for the good of the country, they are fighting amongst themselves as Rome burns and Netanyahu coasts to re-election. Indeed, the recent spectacle of a failed unity effort among Lapid, Livni, and Yachimovich, which led to more public name-calling and acrimony, speaks volumes about the left’s dysfunction.
This is perhaps the most enduring lesson of the Yachimovich phenomenon and the anger directed against her: She is a convenient target for a movement that has seen its political fortunes so precipitously decline by abandoning its values. “While it’s understandable that people would now point their finger at Yachimovich, this is somewhat unfair. She is not the problem, she is just not enough of a solution. This is a disaster for which everyone on the center-left needs to take responsibility,” says Shavit.
Until the parties of the left and center-left figure out a way to talk seriously about security, they will be on the outside looking in and will be unable to find a way back to a position of national leadership. If Yachimovich’s rise to power is any indication—and her likely status as a weak opposition leader in the Knesset as the country’s politics continue to move rightward—it is a journey that will continue for quite some time to come.
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