This is another comparative analysis by Thomas Mitchell, Ph.D., an independent scholar who often contributes to this Weblog. He draws on historical parallels in other conflicted societies for lessons bearing on today’s Israel. As always, these views are his own:
Like the Abba song “Waterloo,” history seems to be repeating itself “like the book on the shelf.” This past Sunday evening, a group of Labor Party rebels met with about 300 supporters in Tel Aviv. Four of the rebels seemed to want to organize a new party immediately, but the fifth, former Labor faction chairman Daniel Ben-Simon, wanted to give Labor one last chance. He said that in two or three months, if things hadn’t improved, he would join his four colleagues as the fifth MK needed to declare a new faction in the Knesset with state funding (at least one third of an existing faction must split away to be recognized as an official new parliamentary party).
This two to three months would give Meretz a chance to prepare its reaction to the launch of the new party. Meretz might begin by studying a similar situation that began about 35 years ago in South Africa:
The United Party formed the government for the majority of years between 1910 and 1948. It was a moderate party (in white-ruled South African terms), tied to its foreign patron, Great Britain, and led by a trio of former Boer War generals who provided electoral charisma. The last of these generals lost the election in 1948. Two years later, Jan Smuts, admired around the world, retired due to ill health and old age and soon died. The United Party in opposition was short of dynamic leaders and a viable alternative policy to the catchy apartheid slogan of the opposition. Their final leader of note was a distinguished lawyer from an established German family in the Cape Town area, Sir De Villiers Graaff.
Div, as he was known to friends, remained head of the party until its dissolution 21 years later. The United Party represented English-speaking whites who were pro-Empire and despised the Afrikaner nationalism of the rival National Party. But this did not make them true racial moderates or liberals. The United Party attacked the National Party in parliament but was a very loyal opposition. In fact, when “grand apartheid” or the bantustans policy was first proposed, the United Party was opposed to buying up agricultural land to transfer to the blacks in an attempt to make the homelands viable. This led to a revolt of the liberal wing of the UP to form the Progressive Party in 1959.
In 1975, the leader of the UP’s caucus in the Transvaal Provincial Council led a splinter group of Young Turks to form the Reform Party. Because both the Progs and the Reform Party knew that two left-of-center opposition parties were one too many, Reform Party leader Harry Schwarz quickly agreed to accept the Progressive Party platform and leadership in exchange for a new name that reflected both parties and some role in the leadership of the new party.
In late 1976, Div attempted to organize a new opposition party out of the existing three parties. Yet he was unwilling to meet the demands of the Progs for a liberal racial policy and insisted on one that was closer to apartheid than to majority rule. This led to the UP’s fatal decline and its demise in the 1980s, beginning with a disastrous election result in 1977, running as the New Republic Party (NRP).
The Progressive Reform Party changed its name to the Progressive Federal Party in 1977 as it took on a new group of former UP defectors. With 17 seats to the NRP’s ten, it became the official opposition. The Federal Reform Party spent the next decade gradually taking over the English-speaking electorate so that it could eventually take on the South African right wing.
Israel is too small for two parties to the left of the Labor Party. It should quickly organize a merger. But if the new party is not to go the way of the New Movement [the grouping of doves and progressives who allied with Meretz with a disappointing result in the recent elections–ed.], it must have a coherent program in line with at least part of the Israeli electorate. It should emphasize domestic economic and social policy over security, as Amir Peretz tried to do in 2006. It should also favor the Syrian track over the Palestinian track in the peace process.
The new party will have to target the electoral base of the existing Labor Party as the Progressive Federal Party once targeted the New Republic Party. Once Labor is eliminated, Kadima might be ripe for a negotiated merger or at least having the new party as the junior partner, as Kadima had Labor from 2006 to 2009.
Nothing serious will happen in the peace process as long as Obama has to worry about managing two wars, health care reform, and economic recovery. So the center-left can worry about its internal battle while Obama takes care of his higher priorities. The goal of the left should be to be prepared for Obama’s second term.