This analysis was first posted on 24 October 2011.
- Shelly Yechimovich was elected leader of the Israeli Labour Party with 54% of the vote after a run off with former party leader Amir Peretz.
- Yechimovich ran on a strong socioeconomic platform, and the recent focus on socioeconomic issues in Israel provides her with an opportunity to tap into the new public mood.
- Polls indicate that Yechimovich has considerable potential to grow Labour’s support. But this appears to come at the expense of the centrist opposition Kadima party, potentially reducing the chances of a centre-left block dislodging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the next election.
- Despite the immediate enthusiasm in the party Labour will face significant challenges, particularly in overcoming internal divisions and maintaining public interest in a socioeconomic agenda in the face of escalating diplomatic and security challenges.
After a second round runoff, Shelly Yechimovich was elected the leader of the Israeli Labour Party. She inherits the party at a critical juncture. Labour received only 13 mandates in the 2009 elections, a historic nadir. After months of internal rivalries, the former party leader and current Defence Minister Ehud Barak split from the party along with four other MKs in January 2011. With only eight remaining MKs in the 120 seat Knesset, Israeli commentators have been asking if the party that led Israel for its first three decades still has a role to play. The question now is whether Yechimovich can fulfil her campaign promise of creating a new direction for the party, and how this will affect the outcome of the next election and the broader political arena.
What is Yechimovich’s political agenda?
Shelly Yechimovich entered the Knesset in 2006 from a highly successful career as a broadcast journalist. She was already a household name, having hosted some of Israel’s most influential political television and radio shows. As a journalist Yechimovich frequently addressed social and economic issues, and since entering politics she has focused on this area. In her parliamentary work Yechimovich has promoted legislation on issues such as employee rights, healthcare and the status of women.
Though she is firmly committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution, she has criticised the traditional angry debate between the Israeli left and right over the peace process. She argues that this debate has distracted Israelis from social issues of national importance. In a recent interview, Yechimovich caused controversy when she rejected, for example, the traditional harsh criticism of West Bank settlements, which has become a trademark of left-wing rhetoric. Though Yechimovich was criticised for this by some on the left, she refused to soften her position. She insisted that the left had been consumed by a narrow focus on the Palestinian issue and had lost touch with the problems that concern most Israelis.
Yechimovich’s criticism of the prevailing political priorities and her focus on social issues chimes well with the recent large scale protests for social justice, which swept Israel over the summer. Though it is unclear whether the momentum of the social justice agenda will prove sustainable, the political potential of this movement is considerable.
In her victory speech Yechimovich emphasised an agenda which crossed traditional political divides, declaring, ‘we are a new non-sectarian party. We are committed to the poor and the rich, to right and left, to haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews] and seculars, to Arabs and Jews.’
Can Yechimovich revive the party?
The election of Yechimovich provides Labour with a chance to redefine its position in the Israeli political arena as a centrist, social-democratic, political alternative. Recent Polls indicate that Yechimovich has significant potential to grow Labour’s vote. One poll showed Labour winning 22 seats under her leadership. However, voters are often attracted to something new, and it will remain to be seen whether Yechimovich can build and maintain this kind of electoral support, when an election may be up to 18 months away. To do so she will have to overcome several significant challenges.
Many factors contributed to the sharp decline of Labour in the past decade. The credibility of the political left was damaged by the failure of the peace process, which Labour had championed, and the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000. At the same time, Labour has suffered as a result of parties to the right accepting the principles of the two-state solution, thereby stealing Labour’s political clothes. After its establishment in 2005, the centrist Kadima party promoted withdrawal from the occupied territories, and attracted many Labour voters. Amidst these challenges, the party struggled to elect leaders with mass appeal. In its efforts to stay relevant, Labour repeatedly joined government coalitions led by Likud or Kadima, but in doing so it further eroded its own political identity.
Yechimovich’s challenge is to establish her credentials as a national leader with a personal rapport with the electorate. Though Yechimovich’s journalistic career means she is well known, she is seen as an anti-establishment outsider. Given that she has never sat in government or held ministerial office, she has to prove she can also be a responsible leader. At the same time she faces the challenge of redefining Labour as a party with a distinct and relevant agenda that people want to vote for.
Part of her challenge will be overcoming division within the party itself. Yechimovich has earned a reputation as a ‘lone wolf.’ Relations between her other faction members are strained, including with Amir Peretz, her runner up. As Labour leader in 2006, Peretz promoted Yechimovich’s entry into politics during her first bid to enter the Knesset. She later switched her allegiance away from him and backed Ehud Barak’s successful bid to take leadership of the party in June 2007. Preventing internal splits and uniting the party will be essential to ensuring the party’s political future.
Another challenge facing Yechimovich is that the present public attention on socioeconomic issues may decline in the face of unexpected regional developments, security challenges and diplomatic uncertainties. However, as much as Yechimovich would like to focus on a domestic agenda, she will still be under pressure to define her position and demonstrate her competence on national security challenges facing Israel. In addition, her focus away from issues around the peace process could alienate some Labour voters who want to see the party as the leading voice of the peace camp.
Will Yechimovich change the political balance of power?
In order to change the balance of power, and dislodge Netanyahu as Prime Minister, centrist and leftist parties need to win enough seats between them in the next election to block the formation of a Likud-led right wing coalition.
Recent polls indicate that the growth of support for Labour under Yechimovich comes in large part from the centrist Kadima party. Many analysts doubt her ability to attract large numbers of voters away from right wing parties. If this is the case, the centre and left parties may remain a parliamentary minority. On the other hand, Yechimovich could pick up new, previously disenfranchised voters who have been reenergised by the social protest movement. Many Israelis have simply not come to the polls in recent elections, and the latest polls suggest that close to 40% of Israeli voters are undecided as to how they would vote in a future election.
There are other major public figures, such as TV journalist Yair Lapid and former Shas leader Ariyeh Deri, who are rumoured to be planning an entry into politics. They may have greater potential to draw support away from right wing parties, and could significantly change the political picture. Overall this makes the situation extremely fluid, and the outcome of Israel’s next election, due no later than February 2013, impossible to predict at this stage.