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Israeli politics

Short-lived panic in Labor with long-term meanings

The defeat of Israel's Labor Party in the recent Histadrut elections was a historical first. But that it was accomplished by a break-away faction rather than the Likud reflects the historical trend of the country's party system -- from oligarchy to individual political entrepreneurship.
by Erwin Frenkel

Throughout the month of June Israel's Labor Party was in a blue flunk. Cabinet ministers, backbenchers, and party functionaries at all levels were in despair.

For the first time in its history, the party had lost control of the Histadrut. A once favorite party son, suddenly assuming the role of reformist crusader, had conquered this vast machine of patronage, money, and power by popular vote.

Just a few months earlier, Haim Ramon, 44, had been Yitzhak Rabin's minister of health and loyalist spokesman. Now a renegade because the party had blocked his national health plan, he had swept into command of the Histadrut by promising to purge the organization of its obtuse, bloated, and ossified Labor management. And he did so in partnership with Rabin's left-wing coalition partner, Meretz.

At Labor Party headquarters there was panic. There was fear that Ramon might shut Labor out of the Histadrut altogether by making a pact with the Likud's Histadrut's faction. Or, that he might parlay his new power and electoral appeal into a platform for contesting Labor in the next Knesset elections. Such a move could split the Labor Party. No one had forgotten 1977, when Yigael Yadin, archeologist-turned-reformer, led a defecting faction out of the party, thus bringing the Likud to power.

Yet now there was also a deeper puzzlement: Yitzhak Rabin seemed undisturbed by Ramon's victory. Rabin's critics recalled that he had campaigned only perfunctorily on behalf of the party's Histadrut ticket. They suspected a secret Rabin-Ramon deal.

According to their scenario, Ramon would clean the Histadrut stables, refurbish Labor's domestic image, and then return to the party as the inheritor of the throne. Meanwhile, Rabin would remain in place for the critical 1996 election. That election will, for the first time in Israel, enable direct personal election of a premier, as distinct from election of a party list. A victorious American-style presidential Rabin would then have the party at his mercy. It would hang on his and Ramon's coattails.

This fear of a secret Rabin-Ramon understanding quickly surfaced in Laborite calls to postpone the new election procedures. A presidential Rabin, it was said, would lord it over his Cabinet and party with even more contempt than is the sorry lot today of those who dare cross him. Israeli democracy itself was in danger, whispered those worried about their political careers.

Yet, by the beginning of July, calm had suddenly returned. The defeated Labor stalwarts in the Histadrut, who had vowed to fight on, handed over quietly to Ramon. He in turn brought Labor, not the Likud, back into the Histadrut's governing coalition. Gaza, Jericho, and a plummeting stock market, not Labor's feuds, had returned to center stage.

What then had occurred? Was the brief frenzy of June simply another example of the short shelf life enjoyed by media-hyped disputes? Or, had the endangered species within Labor's ranks concluded that survival dictates obeisance to the new ecology: Ramon, the comer, and Rabin, the czar.

No doubt, such reasons were at play. But, more significantly, Labor's short-lived June drama was an episode in a greater and quite opposite historical story, namely, the decline of Israel's parties as coherent and centralized political movements.

When Israel was founded, the parties were disciplined organs controlled by tightly-knit political oligarchies and charismatic leaders. They also doubled as service organizations. This gave them large portfolios of jobs and favors for the faithful, even beyond the patronage deriving from government. For Labor, the Histadrut, with its far-flung enterprises and medical service, was the jewel in the crown. The payback was votes that kept the party in control of government and the oligarchy in control of the party.

What Labor did on a grand scale, the smaller parties and their own oligarchs duplicated as poorer cousins. But over the years, this system declined. Voter dependence on party favor decreased as government services expanded, the ruling hierarchies squabbled and split, and an increasingly assertive press was able to open the shutters without which centralism wilts.

Once disciplined battalions, the major parties became political stage shows whose internal feuds and clashing factions entertained and alienated the electorate. Would-be party bosses could no longer dictate political careers as before. Instead, loud-voiced politicians could turn even small followings into leverage inside a party , and those with media charms could score important career points from without.

As a result of these changes, the party system was invaded by a politics of personality. This, despite Israel's lack of a constituency system which is the usual mechanism for attention to person rather than organization.

Only the very orthodox religious parties defy the trend. Obedient to rabbinic elders whose word is law, they flourish as autocratic, non-democratic, movements, in a polity still unable to wrench free from the spoils system of coalition government or separate religion from state.

But the uniqueness of the orthodox parties only illumines the dominant thrust in the secular parties, which is the decline of central authority. It has been replaced by a system of individual political entrepreneurship. Ramon's defection from Labor and Histadrut victory was but a striking example.

This historical change, so long in the making, raises two immediate questions for Israel's party system. Will it still be able to muster the popular consent required by a democracy when faced by truly divisive issues such as evacuation of West Bank settlements or withdrawal from the Golan Heights? And secondly, will direct elections of a premier reverse the trend, creating a new, more dangerous, populist centralism rather than the old oligarchic form of machine rule?

Liberal optimists may point to the present government's ability to sustain consent despite handshakes with Yasser Arafat, a former deeply-hated nemesis. But the Oslo agreement's careful avoidance of the settlements' issue shows why such optimism remains premature. They may also believe that Rabin as a presidential premier is precisely what is needed to keep the country intact through the traumas of compromise with former enemies. Then, under a new dispensation of peace, the party system will naturally restore balances. Such optimism is a tall order. Taller than Israel's friends or newly-inclined neighbors may be able to fathom.

The writer is co-editor of The New Middle East

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