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Can Labor Turn Defeat Into Victory?

The leader of Israel’s Labor party, Shelly Yachimovich, met with President Shimon Peres, and reiterated her resolve to sit in opposition. “Our commitment to the national interest comes before all else, we are thinking of the good of the country and re-starting the peace process,” she told Peres, adding: “That support we will be able to provide from the opposition, and without being in the coalition.”

And so, as Labor settles down for a stint in opposition, it is worth asking whether Labor has succeeded in this election or not. It never expected to win, but the question is whether it came out of election season well or badly.

Some of the polls ahead of the election predicted that Labor would win far more than the 15 Knesset seats it ended up with — and so it should have. It emerged from the last election in 2009 with 13 seats and everyone said it was dismal, and yet four years on only has two more seats. These were four years, it should be added, in which the national agenda played into Labor’s hands — the social protests were the perfect chance for the party to make itself relevant again.

Yachimovich actually did quite well at branding Labor as the party taking up the agenda of social justice that brought people out on to the streets. But she simply couldn’t compete with Yair Lapid., leader of Yesh Atid. She is viewed as prickly and aloof while he is seen as smooth and approachable. And he managed to steal her thunder when it came to the frustrations raised by the social protests. Lapid doesn’t want the far-reaching welfare changes that Labor wants and has far gentler demands, yet he managed to harness the momentum from the movement more effectively than Yachimovich.

But while numbers-wise Labor stands in a similar place as after the 2009 election, in another respect it is much stronger. Back then, it was a party that lacked a sense of direction, indeed it seemed little other than a vehicle to get then-leader Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier, in to the post of Defense Minister. This played itself out in January 2011, when Barak left the party taking four lawmakers with him and set up his own now-defunct faction. Now, it has strong, ideological figures representing the party in Knesset, including social protest leader Stav Shaffir and Merav Michaeli.

The party has its critics, especially those who say it has made a mistake by championing social issues at the expense of its peace agenda, but Knesset strength aside consider where the party stood after the last election and there’s no comparison. Today, it’s a party with a sense of purpose and the confidence — unlike last time — to go into opposition.

As for whether the party will be able to build support during the forthcoming Knesset term, that depends on whether it can communicate to the public the difference between reducing living costs with popular but superficial changes (such as the huge government-promoted reduction in cell phone costs in recent months) and far-reaching changes to the welfare state.

This kind of nuance was lost in the election campaign, but when Yair Lapid’s honeymoon period is over and he’s forced to confront big social issues, it could be Labor’s chance to start forcing it into the public eye.

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