Outlining a Progressive Future

A Labour Sell Out?

Earlier this week the Israeli Labour Party voted to join a coalition with the right-wing Likud Party to form a new government in the aftermath of the 2009 elections. This vote occurred after weeks of debate within Labour as to whether joining such a coalition would see the party sell-out on its principles to retain a level of power in government or whether it would mean saving Israel from a narrow, right wing government that would seriously derail the peace process. Whilst there is no doubt that Labo(u)r Parties around the world have a good tradition of selling out on their apparent principles, there is a genuine question to ask as to whether the Israeli Labour Party did the right thing in Israel to stop four years of a ‘narrow right wing government’.

The best way to look at the situation facing Labour is to discuss the two different viewpoints presented by the opposite sides of the party.

1.)     It was pretty simple for many within the Labour Party that joining a Likud based coalition would be a sell-out in the Labour Parties principles that could seriously hurt the credibility of the party and its future prospects. It must be said that many on the left wing stick pretty strongly to their principles (and rightly so) and find it extremely difficult to even comprehend the idea of joining a party such as Likud in a coalition. The reasons behind this are obvious; as a left winger, one aims for the creation of a new and better society and joining a coalition with a party such as Likud means voting for policies that reverse all that one aims for. This is a fair feeling and one that cannot be ignored.

Secondly, and somewhat more interestingly for many in Labour was the thought that joining a Likud based coalition could damage the party in the future. As a party that’s based around the left wing labour movement in Israel it is understandable that many in the party now fear that joining Likud would repulse their voters  and force them to move away from the party. The logic behind that is clear – with every new right wing policy that Likud implements, left-wing voters may start to blame Labour and turn away from them, adding to the downfall of the once large party. Parallels can easily be drawn here with the Green Party in Ireland, who looks like they will suffer massive defeats at the next Irish election due to their continued support, through voting (but not in media etc.), of a government who has implemented many unpopular measures and un-green measures.

2.) The opposite side of the coin to this argument is one that states that instead of selling out on their principles; Labour has saved Israel from four years of an ultra-rightwing Government that would have set the peace process and the welfare of the Israeli people backwards by four years. Labour has pointed to the number of policy platforms that have been agreed upon by Likud when signing the coalition documents as proof that this agreement has saved Israel and Palestine from many disastrous policies. The problem with this argument is that is assumes that Lukid would have been able to form a government with other parties. It is quite clear the Likud and the other coalition partner Yisrael Beiteinu had many problems with the prospects of joining a coalition with the other right wing religious based parties. Given this, there was a good prospect that Likud may have failed to form another coalition, giving Kadima the option to form a coalition or forcing Israel to further elections. No one knows what this could have achieved, but some may argue that Labour has just provided four years of a Right Wing Government rather than saved Israel from it.

I think it is interesting to ask the question as to whether ‘selling out on ones principles’ is worth it to some level to save a people from four years of more right wing policies. In my mind there is no doubt that the new Netanyahu Government will be disastrous for both the Palestinian and Israeli people, but one needs to ask the question as to whether through joining Likud Labour has made things worse (through ensuring a ‘stable’ Likud government) or better (through changing the policies of the party who were destined to become the government). 


March 26, 2009 - Posted by | Analysing the Left | ,


  1. Good on you for starting a blog, I always think about doing this but never seem to get around to it. I’m also wary of how interested people would be in my esoteric views on fringe topics like calendar reform.

    I think the phenomenon of a party ‘selling out its principles’ vs. ‘staying relevant’ is one of the most interesting strategic dilemmas faced by political parties in post-election negotiations, and is certainly a very common one in continental Europe. But I think it’s interesting to consider the cards the Labour party has in it’s hand.

    A general realignment of the political constellation of Israel has been going on for a decade or so now. The current Labour party seems to have fared worst out of this reshuffling, and they haven’t really been able to settle on a unifying ideology or platform from which to eke out an electoral following. Kadima appears to have captured much of the moderate-labour following, and the defection of Peres to Kadima demonstrates just how dramatic that loss has been. On the other hand, they seem to have lost the support of much of their traditional left-wing base, exemplified perhaps parting of ways with traditional ally Meimad and the weakening relations with Meretz. As the traditional Mapai-Alignment legacy fades out, the Labour party’s schizophrenic modernization seems to be isolating voters.

    That’s really been compounded by the problem of leadership in the party. In the last ten years you’ve had a spate of leaders representing various camps of Labour, and each have attempted to reform (or turn back) the party only to have their changes partially completed and often axed by the next leader. I think the chain of Amran Mitzna – Shimon Peres – Amir Peretz – Ehud Barak is a good example of the problem. Amir Peretz seemed in particular quite wary of the crisis of identity the party faced, and his reforms in all likelihood were necessary, however the lacklustre poll results following these reforms (which I would have thought inevitable in a political realignment) evidently scared off the party at large and they have appointed an old-guard style leader to try and arrest the problem, which has simply diluted the party platform and credibility even further.

    For that reason I think the question of Labour ‘selling out’ it’s values is probably more muted in this case, and not quite so simple as put here. Yes, broadly Labour stands for social-democratic principles, but otherwise the party is very much in search of its ideology. They have progressively jettisoned a lot of their policy (and members) who might unilaterally reject working with the right-wing, and so you have an uneasy mix of Labour politicians left.

    From a strategic standpoint, Barak is an ambitious and somewhat guileless man. His beliefs don’t seem to have gotten in the way much when it comes to personal advancement. I don’t mean to say he is a jerk, but he is pragmatic about positioning. Thus I don’t know if it’s that surprising that he would be lured into the cabinet (as defence minister no less) by Netanyahu. Furthermore I imagine that given the worsening decline of the party, if they don’t stay in government and stay in the spotlight, a few years in opposition would spell disaster. Kadima would assume the role of opposition leaders, so Labour isn’t really left with a prominent role in the Knesset in that circumstance, and without keeping Labour somehow in the public eye over the next 3-4 years it will be tough to bring the party back to the centre of Israeli politics. Now in government with prominent ministries that can continue to get attention, try to define themselves and their policies more clearly to the public, and potentially leave the coalition over a policy point in dramatic fashion later anyway to show the public that they won’t ‘sell out’. To me that seems the better option.

    Comment by Matt L | March 27, 2009 | Reply

    • Matt,

      Thank you very much for your reply. I have to say I’m not an expert in Israeli politics and it’s nice to get a bit more information. It is interesting to look at Labour as a party that is still searching for its ‘ideology’ and I guess one would have to assume that this search over the past decade has been one that has helped create its recent downfall. What is it though that lead Labour to begin this search in the first place, given the strong ideologies they had in the past? Is it that Israel has been pushed to the right leaving them in a bit of a nowhere place? Or something else?

      Comment by simon2013 | March 27, 2009 | Reply

    • Matt, I also forgot to say in my reply (I was unfortunately in a rush), that you should start a blog! It’s a great way to get some practice writing, get your ideas out there and influence some people. So go for it!

      Comment by simon2013 | April 5, 2009 | Reply

  2. I don’t think Israel has moved all that far right in most issues – I suppose the thing about the Israeli Labour party traditionally was that it was strongly associated with both Zionism and Socialism. Under it’s watch you had a lot of wars and lot of expansionist policies, combined with strong socialist economics. Obviously there is little trace of that now. I don’t really know what happened to the socialist part and why it turned social-democratic instead, but I do know that the Zionist associations were slowly changed under Yitzak Rabin. The Oslo Accords and the negotiations with the Palestinians etc in the 1990s were a fairly dramatic change for the party. And I read an article by an academic somewhere that reckons the subsequent perceived failure of Oslo and the peace attempts badly damaged Labour’s security/zionist credentials, allowing parties like Likud to move in with more right-wing policies as an competitor, and eventually Kadima establishing itself as the ‘liberal-Zionist’ alternative. Given the centrality of security in every Israeli election, if you haven’t got those credentials, you become one of the minor parties I suspect. As to why “Labour Zionism” has faded away as a legitimate political movement I don’t know (after all Einstein called himself a Labour Zionist!), but now I’m kinda interested to find out.

    So given all their challenges, you can probably see why they would be keen on staying in government and using that potentially to rebuild credibility and stabilize an electoral following. Still, this Barak isn’t nearly as politically talented as Barack Obama, so it will be interesting to see what ends up happening….

    Comment by Matt L | March 28, 2009 | Reply

    • Matt,

      Thank you. It’s good to get some more information on these issues. If you find out any information on why Labour Zionism has died away I (and hopefully everyone else) would be interested to hear…

      Comment by simon2013 | March 29, 2009 | Reply

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