Away from the drama in Georgia and at the UN, a potentially major electoral development took place in Israel yesterday.
Knesset Member Shelly Yachimovich was elected Wednesday night to lead Israel’s Labor Party. In the final round she defeated her former political mentor, Amir Peretz (who led Labor to the 2006 elections) by 54% to 46%.
Yachimovich is the second woman to lead Labor in the party’s century-long history. The first woman was world-famous, US-raised Golda Meir, party leader and Prime Minister from 1969 to 1974. But the two women are almost diametric opposites. Whereas Golda was a calcified, conservative, elitist nationalist and anti-feminist who rose within party ranks – Yachimovich is a fast-rising star, a journalist who entered politics only six years ago (ironically, it was Peretz who recruited her for the party) and became a prolific legislator, a vibrant outspoken feminist, a relentless social activist who has placed social justice as her core issue and political selling point, and a savvy online organizer.
Without a doubt, Yachimovich is the first big winner, among politicians, from the unprecedented wave of social-justice protests in Israel this summer. And by extension, her party is poised to be a big winner as well, being pulled back from its deathbed…
Labor, who controlled Israel in its first three decades, came in a distant fourth in the most recent elections, and was further fragmented to only 8 MKs out of 120 after its latest leader Ehud Barak, in a order to remain in Bibi’s government, back-stabbed the party and deserted it with 4 other MKs. Now, a first poll partially reflecting new developments, conducted last week even before the Labor final round, already showed that under Yachimovich – a figure with more charisma, “steet cred” and broader appeal than Likud’s Bibi and Kadima’s Livni – Labor polls well over 20 seats, and could well regain its position as Israel’s largest party.
This development demonstrates my long standing thesis regarding the relationship between activists and electoral politics: when activists focus mostly on elections, there’s no one left to watch over issues and values – and insiders and powerful lobbies will corrupt the system from within, control the narrative and get away with robbery and murder. But when activists focus on the issues, on values and coalition-building, and on winning in the streets and in the public mind, the politicians and the electoral results eventually follow suit.
In fact, the effect of the street was already evident before the final round. In the 20 years since primary elections at Labor began, there has never been a case that the two leading vote-winners both had social justice as their front and center issue – instead of being retired generals (like Ehud Barak) or soulless career hacks (like Shimon Peres). Thus, symbolically, Labor party can return to life only by stopping its decades-long worship of the neoliberal molekh, and trying to justify its name again.
It is disappointing that in her bid to win the center (perhaps in an Obama-like manner?), Yachimovich has in recent years mostly turned a blind eye on the Occupation – arguably, Israel’s most egregious social injustice – and a cold shoulder on people who work to end it, including partners on other social issues such as MK Dov Khenin, because of their false “extremist” image. But on the whole, her election, with the Israeli public already focused on social justice, is a positive development.