Israeli Labor’s Sad Decline and Uncertain Future

Israeli Labor’s Sad Decline and Uncertain Future

The sorry state of Israel’s Labor Party is all the more striking against the background of its unique role in the country’s past. Mapai, as it was once called (a Hebrew acronym for The Party of the Workers of the Land of Israel), combined socialism with nation-building. It took upon itself breathtaking and unprecedented challenges, and met them with astonishing success. Labor was the central force in creating first, a functioning socialist (and deeply democratic) civil society, then a state with a social democratic regime. It called its platform “constructive socialism” to distinguish it from revolutionary socialism: there was no capitalism to rebel against, nor a proletariat to rebel against it. Labor Zionism would bring people to the Land of Israel, make diaspora Jews into working people, and then, having created a proletariat, would enable that “nation of workers” to form a state that would be socialist from birth.

This was not just unorthodox Marxism. It seemed to defy the whole of modern political experience—which was, of course, part of the movement’s attraction. It would defy a history of submission and make the Jews an independent people. Nation-building and socialism were two sides of a single coin: a national liberation movement expressing its independence in a sovereign democratic state. But that was formal independence. Real independence rested on productivity—so first the Jews would have to stand on their own economic feet. For Labor Zionists, democracy and socialism were inseparable—the only combination that would make the new Israelis “masters of their own fate,” as Ben-Gurion put it in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Against this impressive background, the spectacle of Ehud Barak crawling into Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government to play second fiddle—third, in fact—seems even more embarrassing than it ordinarily would. Labor once occupied almost half the seats in the Knesset and has now shrunk to thirteen seats (out of 120), the fourth party in size. It also seems to have surrendered its ideology almost wholesale, since Netanyahu is far to the right both economically and on foreign affairs. Barak, the Israeli press repeatedly said, is not the Labor Party’s leader; he is its undertaker. How, then, did we get from Ben-Gurion’s vision to Barak’s petty maneuvering for cabinet seats? Where along the line did Labor lose its soul?

There are two connected stories here. One is about what happened to Labor’s social- economic ideology and the other is about what happened to its dovish stance in foreign policy. But the two stories do not run parallel. They are, in a sense, opposites: the more clearly dovish Labor became in the 1970s and 1980s, the more its voting base was concentrated in the middle and upper classes. And those classes gradually came to resent the (harshly) egalitarian economics of the old Mapai. If they were no longer in control of the ship of state, th...