The decline of "Avodah" (the Israeli Labour Party)

The Israeli Labour Party (Avodah in Hebrew) has been in long-term decline. A. Kramer, in Israel, looks at the background and the reasons behind this decline and points out that opportunities are opening up for a genuine left force in Israeli society.

A few weeks ago Avram Mizna resigned from his position as chairman of the Labour Party (Avodah). Thus in the coming summer months we will probably see a struggle for the leadership of the second party of Israel. It does not look like it will be a battle like those in the past. This is not going to be like a primary to choose the future prime minister of the country, but rather it is going to be the selection of the leader of a party that is in decline. In fact soon there will be another battle in Israeli politics - the battle that will decide which party is to be the main opposition party.

These are days of serious decline for Avodah. One after another, party branches have been closing down both in the big cites and in the provinces. If in the past the Labour Party leadership was well known all over the world and included many remarkable politicians and demagogues, today it is represented by mediocre elements like Mizna or political losers like Shimon Peres and Haim Ramon.

The Israeli Labour Party had glorious days in the past. For about thirty years the party ruled Israel like king Solomon or king David had done in ancient times. The high-ranking party bosses had even declared the new "Israeli Empire".

We have to remember that most of the major crimes carried out by the Israeli regime actually took place when the Labour Party was in power. We are referring to such events as Nakba, the bloody expeditions across the Jordan river in the 1950s, the discrimination against the Oriental Jews, the selling of Yemeni children (in the 1950s the children of Yemeni immigrants were taken from their parents and sold for foreign adoption by the state), the many bloody wars, the friendship with tyrants, and the alliance with US imperialism. Not to mention the "little things" such as the discrimination against Holocaust victims and the repression of Yiddish culture.

The main electoral base of the party came from the "labour aristocracy" in the large state run companies, such as the "Eged" bus company, the "Hevrat ha hashmal" electricity company, the "Bezek" telephone company and many others. The leadership of the party was made up of state bureaucrats, union bosses and former generals. The party was formally a member of the Second International, but in practice its policies within Israel were more akin to the methods of Stalinism than to those of Social Democracy. This kind of "national communism" was used to justify Israeli aggression. This continued until the 1980s, when it was replaced by right clericalism.

But glory comes and glory goes. Its policies of discrimination against Jews coming from Asia and Africa eventually led it to lose its dominant position in the elections, which it had maintained until the end of the 1970s. In the 1980s, in the spirit of the times, the party’s social make up also began to shift away from its traditional worker base and move more openly towards big business. Many big capitalists that had bought the formerly state run companies started to join Avodah.

The Yitzak Rabin years were the last time this political force lived through a triumphant period. In the world situation as it had emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union Avodah moved towards the great experiment called the "Oslo peace process". However, the experiment failed. This was inevitable. Avodah could only do what was possible on the basis of capitalism, which was very little. Arafat, who was supposed to be a loyal puppet, was placed on the Palestinian throne, but he was caught between a rock and a hard place, the Israeli army and Hezbollah. And ordinary Palestinians were not prepared to accept peace without Jerusalem and the return of the refugees.

Meanwhile inside Israel itself, the so-called free market reforms were creating public anger. As result of all this the collapse of the Avodah began. The rapid rise of Barak finished with an even more rapid decline as the second Intifada began. Then came Sharon, and Avodah was left with nothing.

Over the previous 20 years the Labour Party leaders had managed to systematically destroy their own mass base with their programme of privatisation and attacks on the unions. And what are they left with now? A few dozen high-ranking officials? A few thousand pensioners? "Shalom Achshav"?

Avodah's foreign policy collapsed and they have no real alternative economic policy. The economy was what undermined them in the end, not their foreign policy. The economic disaster hit hard the workers and important layers of the middle classes as well. Finally, last December, when they voted for Sharon's budget, it became abundantly clear for everyone in Israel that this party does not represent a serious alternative to the present administration. This was also understood by ordinary working people and this explains what we saw in the January elections.

Today Israel resembles more one of the former Soviet republics – a country without a parliamentary opposition. MERETZ, the left wing liberals died a death about six months ago. Avodah is struggling to survive. Maybe there will be elections every year, but only one party can come to power - the old "New Likud".

The country is left staring in the face right-wing extremism both in the economy and in foreign policy. Benyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Finance Minister referring to the general strike that this "will be the last time we let them ruin our economy". What does he mean by this? Fifteen leaders of the Israeli Islamic party were arrested. There is endless repression against the Solidarity Movement with the Palestinian territories.

In these conditions it is possible that some force will try to build a new opposition party. Inside the MERETZ for some time there has been a discussion about establishing a social-democratic type party. But is this "new party" going to repeat the mistakes of the old one? It seems very much that they are going to go down the wrong road again. The liberals are now putting up posters which say "Yes to Bush, No to occupation!" That can only be interpreted as meaning support for the so-called "Road Map". But after the latest Islamic fundamentalist attacks it looks very much as if the Road Map is leading in the wrong direction.

The bankruptcy of the traditional Zionist left opens up big possibilities for a genuine left alternative. In these conditions correct policies, programme and action on the part of HADASH could allow it to link up with the working class masses who have become disillusioned with the successors of Ben Gurion. At the same time, there are big prospects for non-parliamentary activities, such as the trade union front. This is not a time to remain passive – it is a time for Israeli working class action.