Since the 1980s, under the direction of Shimon Peres, the Labor Party establishment has become one with the leftist ideological fringe. It was in the era of unity government in the 1980s that Peres discarded his security-minded and ideologically motivated support for the settlement movement in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip of the 1970s and embraced appeasement as a national strategy.
In advancing his agenda, Peres cultivated the group of young men — Yossi Beilin, Avraham Burg, Haim Ramon, and Uri Savir among others — that would, under his tutelage, transform Labor from a Zionist ruling party into what it has become today. That is, a party of Neville Chamberlains and Edouard Daladiers, irrelevantly arguing among themselves over whether the surrender of the country's Sudentenland in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza or the building of a "Maginot Line" along the pre-Six Day War border is the proper policy.
Commenting on the state of his party in an interview with Makor Rishon a month ago, soon to be former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer explained, "There is a struggle between two world views. What is the gang [of Labor Party opponents] accusing me of being? That I'm Likud B. That is their accusation. All the various Beilins are trying to turn the Labor Party into Meretz B or Meretz C."
Like a character in a Greek tragedy, whose demise is foretold from the beginning, on Wednesday, Ben-Eliezer capitulated to his party's opposition and left the unity government. In so doing, he embraced his party's irrelevant doctrinal position hook, line, and sinker and ensured that, from an ideological point of view, the results of the elections for the Labor leadership in two weeks will have no impact on the party's continued appeasement platform.
It had to be this way. Today, the Labor Party is comprised of Peres and the Beilins, a handful of shopworn, ideologically barren former generals, old-guard retirees clinging to their party for its nostalgic value, and political hacks who go with the prevailing political wind for personal gain.
It is not an accident that the sum total of the Labor Party's dialogue with the public is one long-winded diatribe against "right-wing extremists."
After their appeasement strategy of the past two decades finally brought the country to a state of war, the only political tool (in the absence of a repudiation of that policy) at the Labor leadership's disposal is hatred of their political opponents.
As Chemi Shalev wrote in Ma'ariv after the unity government's collapse, Ben-Eliezer could not have faced his party colleagues with an 11th-hour agreement with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to stay in the government that did not "explicitly mention the 'settlements.' " Without Sharon's submission to the Labor Party's definition of the "settlers" as an internal enemy that must be punished, Ben-Eliezer could not justify his continued partnership in Sharon's government.
The degeneration of Labor into Meretz C is a tragedy. Given Ben-Eliezer's failure to realign his party with reality and the nation after the destruction of the Oslo process, the historic Labor Party will remain a has-been for the foreseeable future.
This state of affairs leaves the country with only one nationalist centrist party to turn to for leadership — the Likud. The only question that the public needs to concern itself with is whether the Likud is capable of meeting the challenges of national leadership. Its record in office to date is far from encouraging. Although the party has been in power for 17 of the past 25 years, it has never been able to assert itself as a wholly legitimate party for national leadership.
Menachem Begin, who emerged as national leader in 1977 after more than a generation in opposition, feared the Labor movement's opposition and so gave Laborites key positions in his government. Begin also did nothing to end Labor's uncontested control over the governing bureaucracy and the state-run media.
Replacing Begin in 1983, Yitzhak Shamir also did not work to replace the Labor Party as the governing body. During the unity government with Peres, Shamir did not offer an attractive alternative to Labor for young, aspiring, talented professionals, nor did he break the increasingly leftist Labor party's lock on legitimacy with the media and intellectual elites. Neither Begin nor Shamir offered a coherent economic policy, as one should expect from a governing party. Rather, on both the economic and diplomatic fronts, the two spent much of their time either advancing Labor's policies or attacking those policies as if they were still in the opposition.
Under Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud made its first attempt at becoming a national governing party. This attempt failed largely because Netanyahu could not find a way to co-opt or replace the economic, media, and cultural elites who chose to make war on him rather than accept him and his policies — political and economic — as legitimate. Facing this failure, Netanyahu, like his predecessors, ended up advancing the Labor Party's appeasement policy in spite of his personal opposition to it.
Finally, Ariel Sharon, since taking office, has deliberately and counter-intuitively embraced the failed Labor appeasement paradigm. In a public appearance early in the week, Sharon, as he has since taking office, parroted Labor's inane diplomatic-economic platform, when he explained that the tourism industry would only be resuscitated after a peace accord with the Palestinians is signed. In this he echoed the bizarre leftist interpretation of the 1990s high-tech revolution as a Yasser Arafat production.
Hours before the unity government collapsed on Wednesday, Likud MK Yuval Steinitz reasonably told me that the only way for the Likud to emerge as the national governing party is to win the next election. "So far, we haven't had too many achievements to run on," he said. "Our main achievement has been national unity which while important, necessarily falls apart the minute elections are in the offing, so it's not a real achievement."
Steinitz is right. To date, the government has simultaneously fought the war on terror and appeased terror. It has limited its public diplomacy to condemning terrorism, without explaining why the terrorists' goals are illegitimate. It has not even fully managed to convince the US that its war on terrorism is also Israel's war. The government, under Ariel Sharon, has patched together an economic policy based on the Herbert Hoover model of economic stagnation through budgetary austerity and high taxes during a deep recession, rather than the Ronald Reagan model of deficit spending and lower taxes to spur economic growth for the duration.
With all this, no wonder the latest polls show that in contrast to the 15-19 Knesset seats it would have won in a general election in 2001, Labor is now polling 21 seats, while the Likud, which was projected to win more than 40 seats in a general election in 2001, is now polling at 29. Quite simply, in spite of the public's rejection of Labor's appeasement strategy, the Likud has yet, after more than two years of war, to seize the reins of leadership and offer up effective policies for governing.
To meet its challenge as the national governing party, the Likud — whether leading a narrow coalition government or campaigning for office — must advance policies founded on an interpretation of reality based on its own ideological worldview.
This worldview, in contrast to Labor's, has since Ze'ev Jabotinsky been based on achieving national well-being by simultaneously cultivating a liberal Jewish democracy and building and ensuring strong military deterrence of the country's enemies. It is an ideological viewpoint that enables Israel to be a vibrant p
luralistic society, while accepting the reality of Arab rejectionism of its right to exist as the fact of life that it is.
Jabotinsky's vision is not end-oriented. It does not have peace, socialism, or secular statism as its goal. Rather, with its core embrace of all the diverse strands of Judaism and Israeli society and its acceptance of Arab rejectionism as a normal state of affairs, it is flexible enough to allow constant adaptation to changing situations. In this, Jabotinsky's way, which has rarely been tried and never fully implemented, is far healthier and more attractive than Labor's appeasement doctrine which forces the country to distort reality in order to make it jibe with incorrect ideological tautologies.
The Likud is the only choice for leadership, but its success is far from certain. To succeed as the sole party capable of national leadership, the Likud must embrace its own historic identity as a liberal, democratic movement that bases its policies on a firm understanding and acceptance of the country's social and geopolitical realities. It must, for the first time, both perceive itself and convince the public to view it as the legitimate governing party.
Repudiating the Labor model of utopian appeasement and self-hatred and relegating the Labor chorus to the position of irrelevance that it already occupies by making a convincing case for its own inclusive, realistic path are the great tasks before it.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post