Thomas Mitchell: Rebuilding Labor

Thomas Mitchell: Rebuilding Labor

In a previous article, I wrote about lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process for the Middle East. I wrote that Israel’s parliamentary peace camp will need rebuilding in order to implement those lessons and make peace with the Palestinians. Since the formation of the second Rabin government in June 1992, Israel’s parliamentary peace camp—Labor and Meretz—has lost half of its representation.

The rebuilding of Labor—or a new center-left party—is more critical than the fate of Meretz, because the latter is the junior partner. Meretz is the missionary party that has already succeeded in selling the concept of the two-state solution to Labor. But unless Labor rebuilds to the point that it can head a coalition government without Likud or other right-wing elements, there will not be peace in the Middle East.

Labor is a middle-aged party suffering from several problems. First, it is overly dependent on former generals to fill the upper slots on its Knesset list. This has been the situation since Labor was formed in 1968 and the problem has only gotten worse over time. Second, it allowed itself to become too dependent on a few key leaders and did not replace them as they retired and left the party. Third, it has served in too many national-unity governments and so has not sufficiently differentiated itself from the center-right parties, Kadima and Likud. Fourth, it is suffering from the fallout of both a failed peace process and a failed war.

A major characteristic of Labor is its dependence on former generals. There are two key dates in the militarization of the Labor movement, June 1967 and June 1974. Before June 1967 Israel’s prime ministers, namely David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, served as their own defense ministers. Ben-Gurion also served temporarily as a defense minister under Moshe Sharret after another civilian defense minister, Pinhas Lavon, was forced to resign due to a scandal. This was during Ben-Gurion’s temporary retirement from politics in1954 and 1955. On the eve of the Six Day War, Eshkol bowed to popular pressure and appointed former chief of staff General Moshe Dayan as his defense minister. Ever since then, only defense technocrats, one for each of the two main parties, and former generals have served as defense ministers with two minor exceptions. Menahem Begin served temporarily as his own defense minister in 1980-81, after ex-general Ezer Weizman. During his second term, he quickly made room for first Arik Sharon and then (defense industry engineer) Moshe Arens as defense ministers. The latest failed Labor head, Amir Peretz, was a civilian defense minister in 2006 and 2007; everyone has judged him a failure due to his and the IDF’s poor performance in the Second Lebanon War.

In June 1974, after Golda Meir and Dayan were forced to resign, former chief of staff General Yitzhak Rabin replaced Meir as prime minister. Since then Shimon Peres has been Labor’s only “civilian” prime minister. Peres served three times as prime minister: after Rabin suddenly resigned in February 1977 for two months, after Rabin’s assassination in November 1995 for seven months, and from 1984 to 1986 after being elected in a close election with the Likud. Peres was forced to change positions with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir halfway through his term by previous agreement. Since Rabin’s death, Peres has rotated with three former generals, Ehud Barak, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Amram Mitzna, as leader of the Labor Party.

Labor has gone from a record high of 56 seats the year after its creation (1969), to between 35 and 45 seats from 1981 to 1996, to 26 seats under Barak in1999, to 21 seats in 2003 and 19 seats today. This is less than the 44 seats it held under Rabin in 1992. I believe that this shrinkage is due to three factors. First, the rise of smaller parties as the result of direct elections for prime minister from 1996 to 2001. Second, a backlash against the peace camp as a result of the failure of the Oslo Process. Third, the substitution of generals for a program and ideology has left the party without a real identity.

The Labor Party has probably had two dozen or more generals on its lists in the last forty years. Since 1974, Labor has had only one civilian, Shimon Peres, elected as prime minister. From 1974 to 1996 two individuals monopolized the Labor Party leadership. One is now dead and the other left the party after losing the leadership to another civilian. Labor is in definite danger of echoing right-wing parties, permanently losing the Mizrahi and Russian populations and relying on an aging Sabra Ashkenazi population. Unless it attracts a significant number of new voters it will continue to see its share of the electorate shrink and its caucus in the Knesset as well. An over-reliance on former generals as leaders lead to a substitution of imagined military charisma for real popular policies and leadership. Israel is suffering from the same problem.

There is precedent from Labor’s own history for a political penalty for a failed war. The Likud first came to power in 1977 in a delayed reaction to Israel being caught by surprise in the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. The next elections took place in December, too soon for Israelis to take stock of the responsibility for the failure and exact a price at the polls. A price will be exacted for Israel’s poor showing in the Second Lebanon War in the next election. The Likud will probably return to power in a coalition with Israel Beitenu and religious parties.

Labor needs to go into opposition, develop new policies including a social agenda, and develop a close working relationship if not a Ma’arakh-style joint list with Meretz. Because of Israel’s PR franchise system a full merger might not be necessary and could even be counterproductive. But the two parties could found a joint think tank to develop a new peace initiative, new social policies, and new military policies. This will be difficult to implement as the two parties are competitors for some of the same electorate.

But such a new relationship will probably take an outside stimulus to create. It will probably take balanced outside pressure on both Israel and the Palestinians through a dual mediation peace process to achieve this.

I do not go into detailed demographic election marketing strategy. I’m an historian, not a professional campaign manager or pollster. Labor has plenty of these that it can hire in Israel or from America. But that is short term and tactical. Labor needs major strategic changes. So far its biggest innovation has been to have an “aluf” competing for the leadership whose title translates into admiral in English rather than general. In Israel’s situation it is natural that generals play a role in politics, they just should not dominate it and the party should not hold its electoral fortunes hostage to them. In this respect. Labor should be more like the Likud. Making Amir Peretz its leader was a step in the right direction. His mistake was to accept the defense ministry rather than the finance ministry or another economic post. Given more time, Peretz might well have become a skilled war leader, but Peretz could not count on that time in Israel’s strategic environment.

Labor must also conduct a detailed demographic analysis of its electorate since December 1973. It should examine which sectors have left and why. It should then determine which demographic sectors are recoverable and build an integrated package of policies that will attract them. This combined with a principled peace strategy of peace with reliable Arab leaders will help it regain and sustain power. Labor has substituted tactical election policies at the expense of strategic thinking and its dramatic shrinkage has been the result. It is not too late to reverse this trend.

By | 2007-09-05T12:52:00-04:00 September 5th, 2007|Blog|3 Comments


  1. Anonymous September 7, 2007 at 6:15 am - Reply

    Can you post a little bio about Mitchell?

  2. Ralph Seliger September 11, 2007 at 3:01 am - Reply

    A brief bio is in the link: “Dr. Mitchell is a graduate of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and has a doctorate in international relations from the University of Southern California.”

  3. Yehuda Erdman September 29, 2007 at 5:22 pm - Reply

    What do you expect Meretz to do to salvage Labour? Surely they are paying the price for clinging on in the coalition no matter what. The final nail in the coffin was not leaving the coalition when Lieberman was brought in by Olmert.
    They have to look at their own moral compass and this includes the lack of probity and integrity which has infected Israel politicians generally (not Meretz). I am saying they must put their house in order.

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