The Israel Labor Party chose a new leader in a primary runoff on Tuesday. The winner, Shelly Yacimovich, is a former television news anchor whom polls show to have the most realistic chance of leading the battered party back to major-party status after a decade of what has seemed like terminal decline.
Yacimovich (ya-khee-MO-vitch) is a fiery, sometimes abrasive personality best known for her strong economic populism. She’s considered a moderate on the Palestinian issue, especially after an August Haaretz interview in which she infuriated the left by opposing boycotts and demonization of the settlements.
The latest polls show that Labor under her leadership would win 22 seats in the 120-member Knesset right now, up from the 13 seats it received in the last elections in 2009 (five of which bolted with Ehud Barak in January to form the pro-Netanyahu Independence Party). Most of those gains would come at the expense of Kadima, which would drop from its current 28 to 22, bringing it down to parity with Labor.
She is the first woman to lead Labor since Golda Meir in the early 1970s. She is also the first realistic contender for the Israeli prime ministership with a non-Hebraicized Galut family name. That sounds trivial, but it’s actually a serious moment of passage for Israel in its confrontation with the Jewish past, on which there will be more to say down the road.
Pundits say Yacimovich’s strong poll showing is due to a combination of her own media savvy, the timeliness of her economic message, her cautious stance on settlements and the lackluster performance of Kadima chair Tzipi Livni as opposition leader.
A Knesset member since 2006, Yacimovich has been one of the most vocal supporters in the political establishment of the housing and social protests that have filled the streets this summer. The runoff followed an inconclusive five-way race a week earlier, which ironically pitted her against the former party leader who first recruited her to leave journalism and enter politics in 2005, Amir Peretz. She beat Peretz by a convincing 54% to 45%.
Her conciliatory stance toward settlers is a sharply divisive issue on the left. Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, a thundering moralist for Palestinian rights, wrote after her August interview that she had “revealed her worldview: social democracy without ethics, chauvinism just like that of the right — a distorted, disguised and laundered left.” Avirama Golan, another Haaretz commentator, wrote after her victory speech last night that the candidate was offering “to become the ‘social-oriented’ tchotchke of the Likud.”
On the other hand, Haaretz’s star interviewer Ari Shavit, who leans toward the center, wrote after the first round of primaries earlier in the month that her non-confrontational stance toward the settlers could bring peace sooner than her critics concede:
Shelly Yachimovich should not have said what she said about the settlements. It would have been better had she spoken more assertively on diplomatic issues. But if Yachimovich has a real chance to make real peace, she will do so. Precisely because she does not hate settlers, she will do well at evacuating them.
Moreover, he wrote, her abrasive style and centrist instincts could do something that other Labor candidates can’t promise: get her elected.
It’s true that Yachimovich is not really nice. She knows how to tear her opponents to pieces. She knows how to practice politics, even in polluted waters. She is not a purist, nor is she patient or tolerant. She is opinionated, critical and belligerent. She is a lone wolf, arrogant and ambitious. But Shelly Yachimovich is the woman for this Israeli moment. Yachimovich is the one and only promise of contemporary politics.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).