Labor’s Farewell Symphony

An event unparalleled in the history of modern democracies is taking place before our eyes in Israel. The Labor Party – for many years the country’s largest political party – seems to be going out of existence.


(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on July 23, 2002.)

An event unparalleled in the history of modern democracies is taking place before our eyes in Israel. The Labor Party – for many years the country’s largest political party – seems to be going out of existence. Its leading politicians, like the musicians in Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony,” are leaving the stage one by one. Who will be the last to remain on stage? Shimon Peres, who bears a good share of the responsibility for the present state of his party, or the newly elected leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer who, after trying two other political parties in past years, finally landed in the Labor Party?

Under the system of direct election of the prime minister (now fortunately revoked), the elections of February 2001 were limited to selecting a prime minister and the Labor Party retained its representation in the Knesset from the elections of May 1999. Thus they still appear as the largest Knesset faction and have been rewarded accordingly with seats in the cabinet and in the Knesset committees. But all this is no more than an illusion. They are living on borrowed time. At the next election they will be cut down to size.

What brought about this degringolade? It all began 12 years ago when Peres attempted to bring down the previous national unity government, in which he served as deputy prime minister, with the infamous “dirty trick.” Ever since, “the end justifies the means” became the basis for behavior of the Labor Party. The “end,” presumably, was peace in the Middle East, and the “means” were political chicanery. The party that in the past had presented the voter with a national agenda dealing with all of the country’s major challenges, and had managed to stay close to the center on foreign policy and security issues, now threw all to the winds except for its frantic attempts to arrive at an agreement with Yasser Arafat and the PLO.

The Oslo Accords with the PLO, negotiated without the full knowledge and authority of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, were railroaded through the Knesset. The slim majorities for approval were obtained with the aid of the Knesset’s Arab members and by bribing some MKs to leave the parties that had elected them in return for government portfolios and other perks. The fact that this attempt to resolve a conflict, which was basically a conflict between Jews and Arabs, did not enjoy the support of the majority of the Jewish population in Israel or of their representatives in the Knesset, did not disturb the leaders of the Labor Party. If they expected to be recompensed by Israel’s Arab voters, they were to be disappointed.

The party’s leaders were filled with messianic zeal, almost indistinguishable from the Peace Now zealots. They had turned themselves into another “religious” party with single-minded devotion to the peace process, even adopting a semi-religious anthem, the “Song of Peace” – and like the religious parties, they risked becoming a marginal phenomenon on the Israeli political scene.

With Ehud Barak’s election in May 1999, the Labor Party had a last chance to recover from the perilous slide. Barak had positioned himself for the election as a relatively hawkish candidate, uncompromising when it came to Israel’s security. But as soon as he was ensconced in the Prime Minister’s Office he began complimenting the Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, announcing his readiness to abandon the entire Golan Heights in return for an agreement with Assad. Unsuccessful in this venture, he turned to Arafat promising him everything “but the kitchen sink.” The Labor Party leadership followed him as if he were the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Not a single voice of dissent was heard from the party faithful – not even when he offered to divide Jerusalem and concede Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount.

But when it became clear that Arafat, the “peace partner” and Nobel laureate, had remained the terrorist of past years, who as a response to Barak’s offer unleashed a wave of terror against Israel, support for the Labor Party began collapsing like a house of cards. Everything it had preached these past 12 years had turned to sand, and it had no other agenda. If the party is to be rebuilt, it will have to be done from the ground up.


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