The Decline of the Israel Labor Party

By February 23, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 70

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Among the reasons for the decay and marginalization of the Israel Labor Party are its abandonment of collectivist ideology (including the values of military service and settling the Land of Israel), distancing from Jewish traditional values, identification with the wealthy, abandonment of Jerusalem, and identification with the failed Oslo peace process. The party also failed to stay in sync with demographic changes in Israel.

The most remarkable result of the 2009 elections was the emergence of an Israeli political map where the three largest parties in the Knesset are Likud (27 seats) and two of its offshoots: Kadima (28) and Israel Beiteinu (15). Seventy seats went to parties led by Likud or former Likud politicians, while a clear majority of 65 seats were secured by the conservative bloc. This made Benjamin Netanyahu the election winner and candidate for prime minister.

Even many leftist Israelis that wanted to prevent the success of the much demonized Netanyahu cast their votes for centrist Kadima rather than strengthening Labor. Indeed, the once hegemonic party in the Israeli political system – the Israel Labor Party – ended up in 2009 as only the fourth largest party, with a meager 13 Knesset seats. Meretz, to the left of Labor, fared even worse, barely obtaining 3 seats in the Knesset.

The zeitgeist in Israel is clearly conservative. This has been the case for a while. Thus the 2009 elections have witnessed the culmination of an historic process of decline, beginning with the 1977 political upheaval when Labor lost the election to the Likud Party for the first time. This heralded the gradual decay, and eventual marginalization, of the Labor Party.

One main reason for this is the fact that the Labor Party has lost its most important political asset: identification with the establishment and building of the State of Israel. The two main activities in this endeavor – military service and the settling of the Land of Israel – were gradually given up by Labor and its supporters.

Once upon a time, kibbutz members were disproportionately represented in IDF officer ranks. This is no longer so. The social composition of the officers’ course for the ground forces that ended in February 2009 was typical of recent years. Nineteen percent of the graduating class defined themselves as modern Orthodox. A senior officer called them “the new kibbutzniks.”

Similarly, the intensive settlement activity under the guidance of Labor-led governments basically ended in 1977, leaving settlement within and beyond the Green Line to other elements in Israeli society.

The military is still the most respected institution in Israel. A majority of Israelis, though ready for re-partition of Israel, regard settling the Land of Israel an important Zionist value. Labor foolishly allowed modern Orthodox and right wing circles to adopt and commandeer important national symbols – which were once clearly associated with the party that founded the state.

Another important Zionist symbol deserted by Labor is Jerusalem, united in 1967 under Labor reign. The recent elections were also about keeping Jerusalem united under Israel’s sovereignty. Labor Party leader Ehud Barak’s willingness to divide Jerusalem at the 2000 Camp David Summit stunned many Israelis. As a matter of fact, over two-thirds of Israelis oppose any division of the city and are ready to continue armed conflict with the Palestinians in order to maintain the status quo. It is political folly to underestimate the great appeal of Jerusalem for most Jews.

Moreover, Labor’s leaders, particularly its younger echelons, gradually distanced themselves from the Jewish-Zionist tradition and flirted with a cosmopolitan culture and individualistic values, such as human rights and democracy. While there is a consensus about the supremacy of law in a democratic society, the Supreme Court, under the leadership of its former president Aharon Barak, adopted a very active posture, which was not appreciated by the more conservative elements in Israeli society. Yet, the Supreme Court has become the secularists’ temple. Labor and leftist parties in its orbit have gradually adopted the discourse that favors individualism and pursuit of individual rights at the expense of the collectivist ethos that was once dominant, but is still widespread.

Furthermore, the Israel Labor Party’s socialist heritage and groundings have been drowned out, even crushed, by the business and economic elite of Israel. Labor has become a party of the wealthy. The entourage of the old-fashioned Yitzhak Rabin and the “nouveaux riche” Ehud Barak became full of successful capitalists. And so, the underprivileged classes in Israel no longer view the Labor Party as their guardian in Israeli politics. This role has been overtaken by parties on the Israeli right and by religious communities.

Thus, Labor abandoned collectivist ideology, distanced itself from Jewish traditional values, and discarded socialism. Parallel to this, Labor shifted to the left of center on issues of war and peace vacating the center to the Likud. Moreover, Labor became associated with the “peace process,” beginning with its initiation of the Oslo accords. Yet, the Oslo process was fraught with uncertainties, and eventually failed. This has been the verdict for several years now by a majority of Israelis, even those that originally supported the daring diplomatic experiment. The so-called “peace camp” in Israeli politics has been largely discredited. The results of the 2003, 2006, and 2009 elections reflect this judgment. Society was generally ready to “give peace a chance,” but Labor gradually lost their support for the process. At the same time, many messianic doves (an almost extinct species in Israel) now prefer to cast their votes for parties to the hard left of Labor.

In point of fact, Ehud Barak strongly fell out of favor by the unreformed doves in 2001 after he coined the “no partner” phrase (following the breakdown of the 2000 Camp David summit, which shattered most illusions about the capability of the Palestinian national movement as a partner in the peace process.)

Finally, Labor failed to stay in sync with demographic changes in Israel. Gradually, Israel’s Sephardic population is now a majority, and they have displayed a tendency to vote in large numbers for the opposition to Labor. The demographic picture significantly changed again after the Russian immigration of the 1990s. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union have displayed a preference for right-wing parties. Labor’s pool of support thus remained primarily Ashkenazi, older, and middle- to upper-class. Labor has been increasingly flirting with Israel’s Arab community to gain additional votes. Relying on the Arab vote, however, is the worst image a party can have in the Israeli Jewish public. Ironically, the Arab citizens refrained from voting Labor because it largely supported the use of force against Palestinian terrorism.

Consequently, the Labor Party of 2009 is a party with a glorious past, but a very dim future.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.