Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovitch initially expressed bitterness and regret when the unity government was proclaimed. But she is sufficiently sophisticated and intelligent to appreciate that being elevated to Leader of the Opposition, provides her with an incredible opportunity to initiate a process of restoring her battered party to a position of relevance in the Israeli political arena.
Labor Zionism totally dominated Israeli politics in the early decades of the state. It began to disintegrate in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords when it became permeated by delusional leftists and post Zionists.
Yachimovitch, formerly perceived as a somewhat acerbic and intolerant journalist with little direct experience in the parliamentary political arena, has already conveyed signals that she intends to transform Labor into a genuine social democratic party which would have greater appeal to the Israeli mainstream.
She has indicated her intent to concentrate on social economic issues. She has also made it clear that she intends to continue advocating a dovish approach with respect to relations with the Palestinians and remains opposed to the ongoing expansion of settlements. However, she has gone out of her way to avoid demonizing settlers, even reminding her own supporters that it was the Labor Party which initially paved the way for the growth of settlements.
Her principal challenge is the manner in which she will direct the Opposition. Labor holds a mere eight seats in the Knesset and is confronted by a coalition government in the unprecedented position of commanding 94 seats. But her voice as Leader of the Opposition and the influence of Labor in public discourse can assume a far more important role in national politics than her numerical representation.
This will be determined by how Israelis perceive her leadership – either as an extension of one of the most disastrous oppositions in the history of the Knesset as exemplified by Kadima head Tzipi Livni or as a responsible, constructive and intelligent leader providing rational alternatives to government policies.
Livni’s performance as leader of the opposition provided a salutary lesson precisely in how an Opposition leader should not perform. When she declined to join the Netanyahu government and first assumed the role of Opposition leader, she was at the height of her popularity. But she clearly underestimated the intelligence and sophistication of the electorate and by indiscriminately attacking the government at every opportunity, she ultimately succeeded in even alienating Kadima supporters and causing the downfall of her party.
Her personal animosity towards Prime Minister Netanyahu was displayed in hysterical condemnations of virtually every policy undertaken by the government. For example, when Netanyahu first instituted the ten-month settlement freeze she condemned him for caving in to American pressure. Yet when he refused to renew the freeze she then accused him of undermining the US Israel relationship. Many Israelis also resented her rabid denunciations of the government whilst visiting the United States.
Had she emulated Netanyahu, who whilst in opposition went out of his way to praise the government when it initiated acts which were clearly justified, she would have earned the esteem of most Israelis.
Yachimovitch has the opportunity of presenting a constructive opposition. She should be selective about what she opposes and unhesitatingly support, endorse and encourage the government to act in areas which she recognizes promote the national interest.
However, she is faced with a major handicap. With only eight seats the party lacks talented MKs who she can appoint as members of a shadow cabinet, an important element in the role of a traditional opposition. But despite this, she must allocate portfolios and in contrast to Livni, who acted as though Kadima was her personal fiefdom, seek to engage her party colleagues into a coordinated and collective effort to act as watchdogs to monitor the activities of the government.
In relation to the issue of substituting the Tal Law and extending national service for haredim, she must be constructive and only condemn the government if it fails to fulfill its pledge to move in the direction it committed itself or merely proposes a politically expedient cosmetic solution which would retain exemptions in order to appease the haredim.
Likewise, in the area of electoral reform she should assume a positive role especially in relation to changes designed to promote a two or three political party structure rather than the current multi-party system which enables the small one-dimensional parties groups to extort governments to unfairly promote their selfish sectional interests..
In fact, if Netanyahu and Mofaz demonstrate that they are genuine in their efforts to bring about such important and far-reaching reforms, she should seriously consider becoming a partner to such a process.
As Leader of the Opposition, Yachimovitch will by law be privy to important national security issues. While she may differ and oppose particular aspects of the government’s policies towards the Palestinians and the United States, she should set aside political expediency and demonstrate full support when the government undertakes initiatives that she recognizes will promote the national interest. If she does, she will be appreciated by the public and she may succeed in restoring the shattered image of the Labor Party and establishing the foundations for enabling it to regain its role as an alternative government. Indeed should the international situation become more perilous, she should even consider, at least temporarily, joining the government as a demonstration of national unity.
Yachimovitch also faces another hurdle. The Israeli public has, by and large, detached itself from the influence of the delusional left. There is a broad centrist majority, including all the major Israeli political parties, which believes that when the Arabs choose a leader who is genuinely committed to peace, Israel will come to an accommodation with the Palestinians.
She must therefore convince Israelis that the Zionist component of the Labor Zionist party has been restored to its original position of priority. To ensure that, she must distance her party from any association with post Zionist and marginal left fringe groups who should find their natural habitat in a party like Meretz or even further to the left in parties which are not represented in the Knesset.
The success of Labor as an effective and constructive opposition party should be welcomed by the majority of Israelis of all political persuasions, as it would encourage national stability and reintroduce a healthy opposition without which democracy languishes.
The writer may be contacted at [email protected]
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post