Labour Party

Officially, the Israeli Labour Party – or Mifleget Ha-Avoda -, a social-democratic party, was formed in 1968, but in fact it is the party that under various names ruled Israel from 1948 to 1977. The Labour was not really a party but a coalition of various political groups. In 1977 Labour lost power to the right-wing Likud Party. From 1984 to 1990 Labour was in government in coalition with Likud. The party returned to power in 1992 but lost it again to Likud in the 1996 elections.

The backbone of what is called the Labour Party is Mapai (abbreviation in Hebrew of: the Party of Eretz Israel Workers), a socialist, pioneering and pragmatic party that was founded in 1930 as a result of the merger of two other parties. Mapai became the main Jewish party before independence and rejected the extremist and terrorist policies of the ultranationalist right. It was the party of David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of the state of Israel, who became its undisputed leader in 1944. Ben-Gurion was the first prime minister after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. He was prime minister in 1956 at the time of the British-French-Israeli war against Egypt.

Ben-Gurion resigned from all his functions in the party in 1963, as the result of the Lavon Affair, a bungled Israeli terrorist operation in Egypt in 1954. In 1965 he formed a breakaway and radical faction called Rafi (with Shimon Peres and Mishe Dayan). The reintegration of Rafi in 1968 led to the establishment of Labour. A year later, in 1969, Labour formed the Alignment with Mapam, a leftist party. The Alignment lasted until 1984 when Mapam left it because Labour decided to form a government with Likud. Mapam then formed an alliance with two other parties (the Ratz Party of Shoulamit Alloni and the liberal Shinoui party of Amnon Rubinstein) the Meretz (Democratic Party of Israel), which is led today by Yossi Sarid (who was a member of Rabin and Barak’s governments, and is now in the opposition).

One of the reasons for the downfall of Labour in 1977, after nearly thirthy years in government, was the 1973 October War which took Israel by surprise. Prime minister Golda Meir and minister of Defence Moshe Dayan resigned. Yitzhak Rabin succeeded Golda Meir as party leader and prime minister in 1974.

Other reasons for the waning success of the old government party were changes in Israeli society. Sources of power of Labour were the kibbutz movement, the Histadrut labour federation and the large state industries. The new generations did not share the idealism of their pioneering parents, wanted a more comfortable life; collective farming and state companies proved economically unviable and became a burden on the budget; privatisation and cutting of subsidies became the rule. In particular, the demographic growth of the Sefardi and Oriental Jewish communities, excluded from the Israeli political project dictated by the Labour Ashkenazi, has manifested itself in increased votes for the Likud and Shas populist parties.

Finally, due to the Israeli election system, Labour – nor Likud – never obtained an absolute majority in the Knesset. It needed allies and choose, despite the fact that it is a secular party, the National Religious Party as its main partner to underline the Jewish character of the state. But that party became more and more intransigent concerning the Palestinians and finally abandonned Labour for Likud.

The return to power of Labour in 1992 under Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres gave a new impulse to the peace process in the Middle East which started in October 1991 in Madrid. In september 1993, they concluded with the PLO the Oslo agreements for the gradual introduction of Palestinian autonomy and the beginning of negotiations for a global solution of the Palestinian question. By this agreement, Labour, which for years defended the so-called « Jordanian option », i.e. the restauration of Jordanian authority over the parts of the West Bank that would be given back, accepted implicitely the idea of an independent Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza while Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel.

Likud and other right-wing parties campaigned against the Oslo agreements and prime minister Rabin was murdered in November 1995. Foreign minister Shimon Peres succeeded him but lost the leadership contest witht Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 elections. After the defeat, he was replaced as party leader by former Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, who will try to regain power for Labour in the May 1999 elections. In February 2001, Barak lost the elections, Shimon Peres (Labour) allied himself with Ariel Sharon’s Likud, throwing the Labour Party into a deep identity crisis to which, observers believe, the party will not find a solution, hence makig room for a new centre-left alternative more open to Sefardi and Orienral Jews.

The 2003 elections prove to be a failure for the Labour Party who obtains only 19 seats. Sharon then forms his new government without the Party. Mitzna resigns and is replaced by Shimon Peres, the Labour Party joins the government and Shimon Peres is appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 2005. He is defeated by Amir Pretez during the primary elections of 2005 and the Labour Party leaves the government.
In the 2006 elections they get 19 seats in the Knesset and the party enters the coalition government headed by Ehud Olmert
In 2007 Ehud Barak becomes the leader of the Labour Party