Israel: the shift in the Labour Party reflects growing class polarization

The shift to the left in Israel and in the Labour Party has not dropped from the sky. This shift is rooted in these struggles of the past period. Looking at the struggles of the last 10 years, we can see that the working class was willing to struggle against privatization and the austerity measures of the Israeli ruling class. This has now found its reflection in the Labour Party.

On January 17, 2006 in the midst of rumours about backroom deals between the camp behind Peretz (the left wing of the Labour Party) and Ben Eliezer (the centre faction of the party), against those identified with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (the right wing in the party), the Labour primaries to rank the party's Knesset list were held in 354 centres across the country.

Peretz and Ben Eliezer both publicly denied that they were involved in making any deals. As it is the left wing that has all the momentum at the moment, it is clear that if a deal was made it could only be Ben Eliezer’s faction that would make any gains. Barak supporters have been loudly complaining about the backroom deals, but in reality they are only complaining about the fact that they are the weakest faction.

There are other indications of a clear motion to the left in the Labour Party. Among the leading 10 candidates are "Red" Shelly Yachimovich and MK Yuli Tamir, while Orna Angel and Alon Pinkas, who are in the Barak camp, failed to secure realistic slots on the list. Natan Vilnai, a supporter of Ben Eleizer, was pushed down to the eleventh spot.

55% of the 116,948 registered party members voted, which is a relatively low turnout. Those who did not vote are mainly supporters of the former leaders of the Labour Party around Shimon Peres that deserted the party and now support Kadima, the party formed last year by Ariel Sharon. The low turnout could also in part be the result of the demoralization of Barak supporters.

A relatively low turnout was recorded in some regions: 36% in the north and 44% in the Negev. However, at the same time a relatively high turnout was recorded in the kibbutzim (69%), in Druze communities (67%), in Arab communities (67%) and in Mosheim (64%).

This clearly shows that the Labour Party under Peretz’s leadership reflects the mood of working class Jews and Arabs as well as the lower petty bourgeois (Kibbutzim and Mosheim). The Labour Party in Israel is becoming a classical social democratic party and reflects a move to the left on the part of the working class in Israel. So much for those who claim that the Israeli people are one reactionary block!

This development in Israel is part of the shift to the left we have seen internationally. The masses are returning to the arena of history. This is not only happening in the underdeveloped capitalist countries but throughout the entire world, Israel included.

It is one of the ironies of history that those left-wing sects who prior to the 1956 war and even before the 1967 war mistakenly claimed that Israel was a “socialist state”, fail now to grasp the growing social contradictions in Israel in this period.

For them the Labour Party under Peretz is the same party as it was under Peres and Barak. The Labour Party, like everything else, is not fixed, static, nor an “absolute”. It was inevitable that at some stage the Labour Party would begin to move and change, reflecting the growing class polarization in Israeli society.

It is essential that we understand the social processes at work in Israel over the last period in order to understand the shift in the Labour Party and the increased polarization of Israeli society.

Carrying on from a trend that began in the 1980s, the 1990s in Israel were years of further privatization leading to a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few rich families while the number of those who became poor increased. Many people felt that it was only a question of time before these social contradictions would explode.

The attacks on the working class led to a series of struggles led by the Histadrut beginning in the late 1980s. Theses struggles were led by the strong public sector workers including the Dock Worker’s Union, workers in the Ministry of the Interior, the utilities workers, and bank workers. The struggles of these workers were mainly aimed at improving salaries and working conditions and to force the bosses to stick the contracts that had been signed.

However, these struggles suffered from isolation. The Histadrut failed to organize and mobilize workers in the private sector, many of whom were members of the Histadrut. One example is the super exploited Dead Sea Potash workers, whose bosses, Yuli and Sammy Ofer, are amongst the richest people in the world. These workers endure extremely difficult working conditions and receive little more than the minimum wage. Had the Histadrut truly wanted to wage a struggle against the attacks of the bosses, they could have mobilized these workers and launched a generalized struggle.

These struggles have also suffered because the Histadrut leadership accepts the argument of the ruling class that privatization is necessary for the good of the economy. These two weaknesses have guaranteed the ineffectiveness of the struggles of the working class.

The shift to the left in Israel and in the Labour Party has not dropped from the sky. This shift is rooted in these struggles of the past period. Looking at the struggles of the last 10 years, we can see that the working class was willing to struggle against privatization and the austerity measures of the Israeli ruling class. This has now found its reflection in the Labour Party.

This growing mood and willingness to fight led the Histadrut to call a five-day general strike towards the end of 1997, which involved over 700,000 workers, to enforce the pension deal worked out with the Peres government just before it was ousted by Netanyahu in the June 1996 election.

At the end of 1998, the biggest student strike in Israel’s history against high tuition fees broke out. The strike was backed by the Histadrut and lasted 44 days until it was eventually defeated.

In March 1999 400,000 public sector workers, from government offices, the National Insurance Institute, Employment Services, local government, the postal services, the ports and airports, the railways, non-academic staff at the universities, clerks at the courts, banks went on strike over wages and working conditions. This major strike followed on the heels of a civil servants’ strike and job action on the part of teachers just days before. However, this struggle was defeated when the government made a few empty promises and the strike was called off.

What this shows is that the working class was willing to fight back against the austerity programme of the bosses. However, in 2000 Ariel Sharon became Israeli Prime Minister after igniting the Intifada by visiting Har Habayit in East Jerusalem. Under the Sharon government the attacks on the wages and conditions of the working class were stepped up.

By 2003, the richest 10% of Israeli households received 28% of total income, whereas the poorest 50% received only 24%. This inequality became even more pronounced in regard to the share of total wealth and the gap continues to grow.

Ariel Sharon also faithfully aided his friends in the ruling class by cutting income and corporate tax. In 1986 the corporate tax rate was 61%. The rate is currently at 34%. Before falling ill Sharon stated that he intended to reduce the rate even further to 30%. It was obvious that the burdens of the crisis of capitalism were being put on the shoulders of the working class and the poor.

Similar to their counterparts in the rest of the world, corporate salaries rose sharply in Israel. In 2003, the average salary of a senior manager in the top 100 companies was US$ 700,000 – not including the perks, benefits, and stock options. Management in the corporations earn salaries approximately 36 times greater than the minimum wage.

As the corporate share of national income continues to grow, the middle class’s share of national income has dropped by some 25%.

Incredibly, 32% of all working people live in poverty. This is up from 10% at the end of the 1980s. It is clear that the Israeli working class now faces the same conditions and pressures as workers in other advanced capitalist countries. The Israeli workers have faced attacks on wages and working conditions, and face the dismantling of the welfare state. As Marx explained years ago, the bosses are compelled to counter falling rates of profit by squeezing the working class by driving down wages and intensifying production. This is a recipe for an intensification of the class struggle.

However, Sharon was able to cut across the class struggle by turning the feeling of most Israelis, including the workers, against the Palestinian uprising. In this he was aided by the Islamic fundamentalists, whose acts of terror drove the workers and the poor into the open arms of Sharon.

Thus the role of Sharon was to delay the overdue social explosion that has been building up in Israel since the mid 1980s. He did it first by igniting the Intifada and then last year by fostering the image that he was the only one who could stop the Intifada by unilateral retreat from some of the occupied territories. In this he was aided by all parties, including the “left wing” like Meretz and Labour under Peres.

The capitalists were very grateful to Sharon because of the role he played in all of this, and as a result of their gratitude they allowed him to enrich himself through open corruption.

Now things have changed. The bosses can no longer afford reforms or maintain the old reforms of the past. They are forced to launch further assaults on the gains of the working class. Yet the working class can accept no more attacks and cuts. With Sharon out of the picture, the bosses are afraid of what will happen. Parliamentary Bonapartist methods will now be difficult to apply in Israel with Sharon out of the picture. It is clear that it is only a question of time before a social Intifada, the sharp outbreak of the struggle of the working class and the poor, breaks out.

Sharon’s war on the Palestinians could have derailed such a development, but it cannot be prevented forever. In the past, movements such as these could have been derailed by such manoeuvres of the ruling class. But their ability to do so will ultimately be conditioned by the situation internationally. In the situation of a global crisis of capitalism and growing class struggle internationally all the momentum will be on the side of the working class. This can only encourage the workers of Israel.

The changes in the Israeli Labour Party, from a junior partner in Sharon’s coalition to an opposition party raising social issues, is itself a reflection of this developing struggle and reveals the potential of the struggles to come.

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