Even a second Rabin could not save the Israeli Labor Party

Maybe for Rabin, the date was always 1948 or 1967, and all it took was force of will for Israel to achieve whatever it wanted. To listen to Israeli leaders now, is to travel still further back in time. The date is always 1938, the place is always Munich, the enemy is always Hitler.

Fifteen years to the day since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Daniel Elton looks at its implications for Israel’s centre-left

It was said of Leo Tolstoy, that while he was alive no man was an orphan. Fifteen years after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, it is more true than ever that Liberal Zionists are politically fatherless. As David Grossman put it at the 2006 Rabin memorial service:

“There is no king in Israel, our leadership is hollow.”

As the years roll by, Rabin the man recedes and Rabin the idea grows among those who long for a politically responsible leadership from West Jerusalem.

A man who seemed to be made out of the very dust of the land of Israel, he was no peacenik: Indeed his brutal suppression of the first intifada endowed him with the credibility to pursue peace.

However, his belief in the strength of the Jewish people, that the Zionist enterprise had enabled Jews to transcend their past victim status, led him to assert that Israelis were masters of their own destiny.

Maybe for Rabin, the date was always 1948 or 1967, and all it took was force of will for Israel to achieve whatever it wanted. To listen to Israeli leaders now, is to travel still further back in time. The date is always 1938, the place is always Munich, the enemy is always Hitler.

One lesson of Rabin’s death, and the subsequent withering of the Israeli peace camp of which he was leader but not a member, is that political movements with no organic basis in society face an inevitable demise.

Indeed many of Rabin’s arguments are still valid. Israel faces a simple choice: divide the land and remain a Jewish democratic state; share the land and relinquish its Jewish character; or perpetuate a regime which must resort to legalistic and semantic arguments to distance itself from Apartheid.

And with every year, as settlements are built crossing ceasefire lines and slicing through Palestinian population areas, the first option grows ever more remote. The comparative calm created by the separation barrier could have been used to reach out to the West Bank Palestinians – instead it has been used to ignore them.

But there is simply no one left to vote for Rabin’s Labor Party. While the party was ideologically based in statist planning, social democratic economics, and an approach to territorial issues based on security rather than a transcendent attachment to any particular part of Israel/Palestine, its sociological base is dying.

The secular descendents of the Eastern Europeans who dominated the Jewish community of Palestine from the 1900s until the 1950s made up the bulk of Labor voters. However, they have become the country’s prosperous elite and quite like capitalism. Labor has continually diluted its beliefs accordingly. Finally under the leadership of Amir Peretz in 2006, a former trade union boss of Morrocan descent, the party flirted with becoming an out and out social-democratic party of the poor and organised labour.

However, Peretz took on the defence ministry in a government when he wanted to be finance minister, and the mistakes of the Second Lebanon War were laid at his, and prime minister Olmert’s, feet. The party went back to its former leader Ehud Barak – a capitalist to his very core who now props up a hard right government that includes open proponents of ‘population transfer’.

Most sickening of all, he supports a prime minister, Bibi Natenyahu, who as leader of the opposition during Rabin’s prime ministership, helped to rachet up the anti-Rabin rhetoric and create the atmosphere that made assassination possible. But Barak’s Labor is impotent: its sociological base continues to decline as a proportion of the Israeli population, and it does not truly believe in left-wing politics anyway. The question is left as to why to vote Labor.

The lesson for centre-left parties around the world is stark. You can have all the right arguments. There may even be blood on the hands of your opponents. But if you cease to be the political expression of an organic part of the society which you are seeking to represent, you are doomed.

Even in the impossible circumstances of a second Rabin emerging, it would be unlikely to save the Israeli Labor Party from its seemingly imminent extinction.

10 Responses to “Even a second Rabin could not save the Israeli Labor Party”

  1. Shamik Das

    Even a second Rabin could not save the Israeli Labor Party: http://bit.ly/bv4eZC says @danielelton on @leftfootfwd

  2. maxy

    The Rabin iniatitive never had a chance of suceeding as have all other peace initiatives since then. The political make up of Israel is such that the voices of no negotiation or compromise are wedded deeply into the political psyche so that all other voices are drowned out. All politicians pay lip service to negotiating a peace settlement knowing full well that when push comes to shove Israel will never agree to it. The chance of reaching a settlement now whether it is a one or two state solution is fanciful. A solution which achieves parity, equality and justice for both sides should be imposed on Israel. How many more UN resolutions can Israel continue to ignore. America will never be in a position to give the Palestinians statehood. You only have to look at the Obama record with one embarrassing climb-down after another to know that the solution does not lie with America. Look too at the recent ambush of William Hague who was publicly humiliated by the Israelis. The Palestinians need to be encouraged and supported financially to declare their own state. If Kosovo can do it, why not the Palestinians. There is no political will in America or Europe to face down Israel. Palestinians need to take charge of their own destiny. Fro too long now Israel has been able to hide behind the anti-Semitism umbrella where legitimate critics of Israel are seen as attacking the Jewish people. I do not see why the Palestinian people should have to pay the price for holocaust atrocities which were committed in Europe. The idea that the Israel and the Jewish people that support the state of Israel are above criticism is deeply racist in itself. Israel is not a special case and the Palestinians should not be asked to pay the price for European guilt one second longer.

  3. Anthony Painter

    On the fifteenth anniversary of his assassination, a powerful piece on Yitzhak Rabin by Daniel Elton http://j.mp/d7HeMm

  4. Noelinho

    RT @anthonypainter: On the fifteenth anniversary of his assassination, a powerful piece on Yitzhak Rabin by Daniel Elton http://j.mp/d7HeMm

  5. Richard Howitt MEP

    Palestinian solidarity AND work with sister party to change Israeli public opinion for peace @danielelton @leftfootfwd http://bit.ly/bv4eZC

  6. Roger

    While this is an intelligent article with which I largely agree, I really wish that you’d published it somewhere else other than LFF.

    Israel/Palestine debates invariably bring out the very worst in everyone who gets involved in them and never convince anyone to change sides.

    I myself have said absurdly stupid and hateful things in the course of such ‘debates’ them – and had the same or worse said or shouted back at me by people with whom I agree on most other issues.

    And if you want such arguments The Guardian’s Comment is Free will publish an article to which you can append all the vituperative comments you like every couple of days.

    LFF has been a site that has rightly focused almost exclusively on domestic politics and where we can engage in fairly rational debate about issues we might just conceivably be able to do something about before we all die of old age.

    Israel/Palestine is not such an issue – both sides are now so consumed by hatred and fear that no solution is conceivable in my lifetime.

    So let’s just accept that reality and get on with battles which we can win here and now rather than those which pointlessly divide the Left.

  7. maxy

    I could not disagree with Roger more. The ideas that LFF should only concentrate on domestic issues is a ridiculous and fatuous argument. Britain has a moral as well as historical obligation to solve the Palestinian problem. If it was not for the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which granted the right of Jews to settle in what was known then as British Mandate Palestine with a view to creating a Jewish state, we would not be having this discussion today on the dispossession of the native Palestinians, who almost sixty years on are no nearer to getting a state they can call their own.
    Indeed it is precisely because of the insular mentality displayed by Roger than nothing gets done. The famous maxim which says that all that is required for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing springs to mind.
    As for winning battles here, the Labour Party and the Left in general seems to be in disarray as to how to deal with the Cuts and the economy generally. The idea then that because this is happening in UK Plc that we can do something about it fanciful as it is plainly wrong. As long as the Lib Dems and the Conservatives stick together and there is every indication that they will, no amount of argument is going to make the slightest bit of difference to the Agenda which the ConDems are determined to pursue. So far the Con Dems have been able to push through a raft of controversial and far reaching legislation and there is little that the Labour Party can do.
    I want but have yet to hear a clear, lucid narrative on why the approach adopted by the new government is wrong or misguided. Indeed it is truly shocking that no credible, coherent argument has been developed by Labour. Ed Miliband has a lot of ground to catch up and really needs to get his message out, sooner rather than later, to the British people.

  8. Dan McCurry

    @ Maxy,
    You say you “do not see why the Palestinian people should have to pay the price for holocaust atrocities”
    Is it the holocaust that causes the Isrealis to have such tough security or could it be the 200 suicide bombers who killed 1,000 Israelis during the 2nd intifada?

  9. GazaOlive

    Even a second Rabin could not save the Israeli Labor Party – Left Foot Forward http://t.co/0qiAwKFk #Palestine #Israel

  10. Politica City

    Even a second Rabin could not save the Israeli Labor Party: But Barak's Labor is impotent: its sociological base… http://t.co/8n5wjhQE

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