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Jewish World Review August 13, 2002 / 5 Elul, 5762

Neill Lochery

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Israel's Labor out in cold | (UPI) Just over 25 years ago, Israel's nationalist Likud Party came to power for the first time after a historic election victory over the Labor Party, which under various banners had ruled the country since its creation some 29 years earlier.

At the time, the belief among many in the Israeli left was that Likud's triumph was a "freak road accident" that would not be repeated, and that normal service would soon be resumed with the return of the Labor Party to power at the next election -- or even before.

These believers put much emphasis on the technical reasons for the 1977 electoral defeat such as corruption scandals; the poor campaign run by the Secretary-General Chaim Bar-Lev; the resignation of Yitzhak Rabin, and the shifting of the Histadrut elections (long considered a forum for casting a protest vote against the Labor Party) from before until after the Knesset elections.

The list of excuses was seemingly endless.

What was absent, however, was a total lack of understanding of the deeper reasons for the long-term decline of the party. In my book, "The Israeli Labor Party: In the Shadow of the Likud," published in 1997, I argued there were four major sets of explanations as to why the Labor Party's support declined between 1967 and 1977. I also suggested there was little sign of any green shoots of recovery for the party's prospects.

The four areas that I identified were:

1. The party leadership had become detached from Israeli society. It was deeply divided and more interested in getting its respective "foot soldiers" into positions on the Central Committee than winning national elections. In short, the party's core was rotten and needed urgent reforming in areas ranging from the party's institutions to the accountability of its leadership to its party membership.

2. The failure of the party to adapt to the changing demographic composition of Israel -- or in other words, the party's failure to attract support from the increasingly numerically important Jews of Sephardic origin (Sephardim).

3. The failure to adopt a clear and unified response to the Arab-Israeli conflict following the 1967 Six Day War and the conquest of new lands by Israel. The series of compromise functionalist approaches to the problems of the West Bank and Gaza alienated both the peaceniks and the hawks within Israeli society.

4. The failure to successfully manage the economy over a number of years and the widespread perception that the labor economic sector was inefficient and corrupt.

Since 1977, the party has been in opposition -- or had only a share of power (with the Likud) -- for nearly 20 years. It has been the senior coalition partner on only two occasions, between 1992-1996 and 1999-2001.

In both of these cases, the party's so-called electoral triumph said little about its recovery and more about the popularity of the leader at the time -- Rabin in 1992 and Ehud Barak in 1999.

Indeed, in 1992, Rabin and his team of advisers went to great lengths to try to hide the still unpopular Labor Party from the electorate. Rabin even ran on a ticket titled "Labor under Rabin."

Likewise in 1999, Barak went as far as changing the name of the party to One Israel in hopes of winning greater support.

Given these facts it is clear that the Labor Party has not won an election for almost 30 years (1973 being the last success).

Applying the original four explanations for the party's decline to the present, it is clear that much work still needs to be done if the party is ever to triumph again.

The current leadership remains bitterly divided and is ravaged by personality clashes. The Ben-Eliezer versus Ramon conflict has superseded the Peres-Rabin rivalry and the earlier Dayan-Sapir-Allon clashes. The party's institutions show little signs of being able or willing to make the leadership more accountable.

The party has made little progress in attracting more support from the Sephardim. To be sure, both Rabin (1992) and Barak (1999) won over some of the Sephardim votes, but this was due to the personal appeal of each candidate rather than the party.

Subsequently, in both the 1996 and 2001 elections, these votes migrated back to Likud leaders. The Labor Party has made few inroads into this other crucial voting constituency, the former Soviet immigrants.

In terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the party remains in a mess. The current situation mirrors the state of the party in 1987-1988 at the start of the Palestinian intifada.

At that time, the party was in a loveless marriage of national unity with the Shamir-led-Likud. It sensed, correctly, that Israeli public opinion had shifted to the right in the wake of the upsurge in Palestinian violence (just as it has done in 2002) and positioned itself to try to mirror this new national consensus.

As the results of the 1988 election confirmed, this strategy backfired, with the Likud securing a narrow but decisive victory at the polls. Today, clear leadership on this issue is needed along with a policy framework that distinguishes it from the Likud.

In reality, the party sends out mixed messages ranging from the dovish views of Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben-Ami to the more hawkish policies of Ben-Eliezer.

It is difficult for the party to sell a message of economic competence when recent memories are of the Barak-Labor-led administration's unfulfilled promises and general abandonment of lower-income workers.

Here the party could do worse than start to educate the Israeli electorate on the perilous nature of Israel's economic position and the difficult choices that any administration must face when it comes to office.

Each election since 1977 has brought its own set of excuses for the party's failure to win power, usually centering on Shimon Peres or the religious parties. The simple truth, however, is that the Labor Party is still not trusted -- or liked -- by the majority of the Israeli electorate.

Consequently, the party needs urgent reform of its institutions and policy-making apparatus -- and a leader who can appeal to a wider sector of the electorate -- if it is to reverse its long-term decline and stand any chance of winning power in elections scheduled for 2003.

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Neill Lochery is director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College, London. Comment by clicking here.

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