Sara Hussein, AFP
Last updated: 19 January, 2013

Israel’s Labour leader rides social discontent

Pragmatic and confident, the head of Israel’s Labour party Shelly Yachimovich believes she can eke out a victory in January elections by focusing on socio-economic discontent.

It is a strategy that the 52-year-old former journalist hopes can reinvigorate the party — an Israeli stalwart that held 56 seats in the Knesset, or parliament during its 1969 heyday, but now has just eight.

So far, the strategy appears to be working.

Labour is expected to become the second largest party in the next Knesset with around 18 seats, behind only the juggernaut list combining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud with the hardline nationalist Yisrael Beitenu of ex-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Yachimovich, who joined the party six years ago, was named its leader last year after winning 54 percent of the primary vote compared with the 46 percent taken by her former mentor Amir Peretz, himself a one-time Labour leader.

Known for her campaigning on social issues, Yachimovich is hoping to capitalise on the widespread discontent over rising prices in Israel that spurred massive protests in mid-2011.

She has sought to clearly define the differences between Labour and the Netanyahu government, and even ruled out entering an eventual coalition with him, saying voters needed to see Labour as a real alternative.

Although she was not raised in the smoke-filled rooms of the Labour party, Yachimovich managed to defeat two seasoned opponents to take over as its head.

It is only the second time that the party, which dominated Israel’s political scene for the first few decades after the founding of the state, has elected a female leader — the first being Golda Meir who was premier from 1969 to 1974.

Before she took the helm, Labour was effectively leaderless after its chairman Ehud Barak, the outgoing defence minister, left to form his own faction.

Four other Labour MPs jumped ship with him to form the Independence party in January 2011, but just two months ahead of Tuesday’s election, Barak said he was retiring from politics and the faction has effectively disappeared.

A skilled debater and former radio and TV presenter, Yachimovich has benefited from a mostly a warm reception from the local media.

The one exception has been the left-leaning Haaretz, which accused her of being the voice of “the fake left” because of her refusal to take a stand against Israeli settlements.

“I do not consider the entire settlement project to be a sin or a crime,” she said in an interview with the paper.

She defines herself as a “humanist social-democrat” and says she would seek a peace settlement under which Israel would keep blocs of settlements in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.

She has also sought to de-emphasise the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in her campaigning, saying Israelis are most concerned about the cost of living and that vast income disparities should be the government’s primary concern.

Born in March 1960 in Kfar Saba, a comfortable town near Tel Aviv, she has two children and a degree in behavioural sciences.

Her first job in journalism was with the leftwing daily Al-HaMishmar, after which she worked in radio and television before entering parliament in 2006.

She held onto her seat during the disastrous election of 2009 when Labour fell to a historic low of 13 seats.

Although most polls predict she will become the next leader of Israel’s opposition, her party has pointed to the consistently high number of Israelis who say they are undecided voters, saying they could swing the vote Labour’s way.