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Israel lawmaker wonders if his Labor Party may deserve its fate

Labor seeks new leadership and is trying to regroup. But Daniel Ben-Simon fears it might be too late. The outspoken member of the Knesset spoke about why Israelis have turned against his party.

March 28, 2011|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Morrocan-born Israeli Labor Knesset member Daniel Ben-Simon, left, chats with Andre Azoulay, advisor to Morrocan King Mohammed VI, at a Jerusalem event in 2009.
Morrocan-born Israeli Labor Knesset member Daniel Ben-Simon, left, chats… (Abdelhak Senna, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Jerusalem — He says the Israeli left is in disarray and its standard-bearer Labor Party has betrayed its values so much, it might be renamed the "Prostitution Party."

It's a harsh analysis, and somewhat surprising given that it comes from lawmaker Daniel Ben-Simon, one of the party's leaders.

In January, Ben-Simon was so frustrated that he announced plans to leave Labor. But he changed his mind after former Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak quit instead to form his own party, just as other party leaders were threatening to oust Barak.

Now Labor is looking for new leadership and trying to regroup. But Ben-Simon fears it might be too late. The outspoken, Moroccan-born member of the Knesset, or parliament, talked to the Los Angeles Times about why Israelis have turned against his party.

Where did Labor go wrong? The party is rooted in Israel's founding and now is on the verge of extinction.

This party founded the state, created the culture, the values, the jobs and the army. But after its 27 years of total dominance in power, Israelis rejected the party in 1977. Since then, the party has never really recovered.

Though I'm a member, I couldn't tell you the exact identity of this party. In the past 30 years, we have joined any government and we have given legitimacy to any idea. Most recently, we joined the most extreme [right-wing] coalition since the creation of the state. It's not a prostitution party, but it's nearly that. Israelis are sick and tired of it. In the last election, we got 13 seats. The natural decision would have been to go to the opposition. But we joined the coalition. Why? If we've been given a political death sentence, we deserve it. Israelis are saying: "My God, where is your honor? Where is your ideology?"

But traditional Labor ideology is all around today. Endorsement of a Palestinian state once defined the Labor Party; now it's widely accepted by almost everyone, even Likud leaders.

It's a kind of solace, a consolation for the poor. We have been winning on ideas but losing on the ballot. My impression is that Israelis vote for the right wing in order to carry out left-wing ideology. Most of what [former Prime Ministers] Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon did, and what [current Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is going to do, was created in our house. Despite that, Israelis don't vote for us.

Why not? They don't trust you to execute your own ideas?

Absolutely. You got the answer Nov. 4, 1995. As soon as [then-Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin touched the issue of peace, he was killed. In their eyes, we are not kosher enough. We are not legitimate enough to touch the issue of peace with the enemy. This is something deep in the souls of Israelis. They like us. They will rely on us for anything, except for making a deal with the Arabs.

By not "kosher" enough, you mean not nationalistic or patriotic enough?

Yes.

There does seem to be an image problem with the Labor Party. It's frequently painted nowadays as anti-Israel.

This is new and worrisome and something that I've never encountered before. It's a kind of McCarthyist attitude. And it's associated with the rise of the Russian [immigrant] party [Yisrael Beiteinu] and the Putin of Israel, Mr. [Avigdor] Lieberman. [This week] there will be a vote on establishing a commission to investigate the left. It's insane. The left created this country. … The tragedy is that newcomers are teaching the founders a lesson in patriotism.

Some might say these newcomers are outmaneuvering the old-timers, politically speaking.

Yes, I'd say I tip my hat to them. The fact that they've reached the point they reached is due to their political power and maneuvering. I envy their influence and the way they've been able to change society.

Maybe Israelis are simply not as liberal as they once were, and that's why Labor is slipping.

I tend to disagree with this. I've followed Israeli politics for 25 years, and no one can tell me what Israelis think. If you present them with a peace deal, 85% will say yes, and Mr. Netanyahu knows this.

Conservatives would say Israel did exactly that in the 2000 Camp David peace talks, and Palestinians said no, which led to the second intifada. Was that a factor in Labor's downfall? Did Israelis become disillusioned with the peace process and, by association, Labor?

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