Death of the Comrade, and of the Party

Sini died. My son spotted the square black-bordered obituary notice deep inside the newspaper. It was placed by Sini's kibbutz. It referred to him as "Sini," his nickname -- "Chinaman" in loose translation, politically incorrect today but accepted when he got the name, somewhere so far back in the previous century that no one is around to remember when it happened. The nickname referred to his eyes, which had the Tartar look that occasionally occurs among Jews of Eastern European ancestry. The ad gave his real name, Arnan Azaryahu, in parenthesis. It said nothing of what he'd done in life. Those who need to know, know -- those who were high up in the movement, the underground, the party. The death notice mirrored how he lived, between understatement and secrecy.

I was surprised by my own surprise at his death, and by how sad I was. When I interviewed Sini five years ago about the history of Israeli settlements, he was already 87. He spoke for four hours, with a deep voice and a clear memory, never getting out of the chair in the tiny kitchen of his kibbutz apartment, a few hundred meters from the Lebanese border -- an old, slightly slumped man in the Spartan frontier dwelling of another era. I'd been told to go to him by those who remembered him as the shadowy aide of the Yisrael Galili. Galili's official title in the 1960s and 70s was minister without portfolio; his actual job was advising three Labor Party prime ministers -- Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin -- on defense policy and party intrigue and quietly (always quietly) orchestrating settlement in the occupied territories. For me, Sini was a living connection to the inner sanctum of Labor in its days of power.

Of Galili, it's said that he was so secretive, he didn't speak when he answered the phone. He waited to find out who was on the other end before identifying himself. Galili left a vast personal archive but -- according to Sini -- he never set his real thoughts to paper and discussed them only in one-on-one meetings, "because what's written is revealed." Each day Galili received the same military reports as the prime minister; Sini read them and wrote memos. Something about the way Sini's voice trailed off at the end of words, the way he slashed the air with his hand for emphasis, made me think I'd met him before. Late in my afternoon with him, I realized Rabin had spoken the same way, with the same gestures. Both Rabin and Sini had studied at the same mythical high school, both served in the Palmah, the pre-independence Zionist underground based in far-left kibbutzim. In 1948, Sini was the aide-de-camp of Yigal Allon, the 31-year-old general who defeated Egypt on the southern front and who later also became a key figure in the Labor Party.

Sini is dead. He was of a generation of Israeli founders that is very nearly gone, with its courage and prejudices, its harshness and victories. Kibbutzim have mostly been privatized. The revolution of creating a Jewish state will soon be something outside any living memory. The Labor Party -- for practical purposes the party of the founders -- is also on the verge of being no more than history. Children will struggle before tests to remember what it stood for. Actually, voters today aren't too sure either.

Polls predict that when Israel holds elections on Feb. 10, Labor may fade to 10 seats in the 120-member Knesset. The real race is between Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's centrist Kadima. There are proximate reasons for Labor's fadeout, including the party's reflexive return to the manifestly unpopular Ehud Barak as leader. The reflex hints at deeper problems: Barak is a kibbutz-born ex-general with no clear political positions, an embodiment of the old Labor aristocracy.

Seen in a longer perspective, the conundrum of a movement that creates a state is how to reinvent itself afterward as a party that is relevant to the new reality. Labor hasn't succeeded. Arguably, its long, slow, failing struggle to survive has also stood in the way of creating a vibrant Israeli left.

This Tuesday, a few days after Sini's death, Labor tried to hold a primary to choose its candidates for the Knesset. The party arranged to conduct the vote for the first time by computer, with members tapping touch screens to choose candidates. The computer system malfunctioned, and by early afternoon the party leadership stopped the voting. The primary was rescheduled for today, using old-fashioned paper ballots. The incident begged to be read as parable: No matter how hard it tries, Labor can't enter the 21st century.

Labor in its current form was established in 1968, in a merger of three parties with fading socialist ideologies. Two of them -- Mapai and its smaller, more radical rival, the Unity of Labor -- dated back to the struggle for independence. That's when they built the basis for a socialist state: the kibbutzim, a powerful labor union that owned a chunk of the economy, a mammoth HMO, a school system for workers' children, and more. They also built the underground military that would morph into the Israeli army.

After statehood, as one union official told me much later, "Mapai regarded the union, the kibbutz movement and the government as arms of the party." Mapai, and Labor afterward, were caught between protecting party institutions and building state ones. Only in the 1990s, for instance, did Labor agree to national health insurance, relinquishing the hold of its crumbling union over health care. The old revolutionary habits of secrecy and democratic centralism held on for years. In his time, Galili's power derived from his ability to paper over ideological differences with vague formulations.

Mapai and Labor related to the Jewish refugees who flooded in from Middle Eastern countries and who became the underclass as clients, not as equals. The immigrants, in turn, saw the kibbutzim as a landed gentry and "socialism" as a code word for entrenched class structure. The second generation of party leaders -- Rabin and Shimon Peres -- rose through the army and Defense Ministry. Their sentences always included the word "security." In the era of Reagan and Thatcher, they easily adopted neoliberal economics.

Labor's worst political failure came after the military victory of 1967 and the conquest of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and the Sinai. The party was unable to agree on policy for the future of the occupied territories. Instead, it fell back on a pre-independence tactic: Incrementally altering borders by establishing settlements. Galili directed the project with the clandestine instincts of an old conspirator. The vast settlement enterprise later built by the Likud stood on a foundation laid by Labor.

The last desperate attempt to turn Labor into a modern social democratic party was led by Amir Peretz, a Moroccan-born trade unionist. Peretz was elected party leader in 2005. But when he joined Ehud Olmert's government in 2006, he accepted the post of defense minister rather than insisting on control of economic policy. Peretz, it seems, surrendered to critics within Labor who said he needed military credentials. Then he let the generals lead him into the Second Lebanon War. When he quit, Labor reannointed Barak, ex-prime minister and embodiment of the party's lack of direction. Barak's management of the current campaign conjures up Napoleon's retreat from Russia.

Yet when I saw Sini's death notice, I still whispered, "We that are young/shall never see so much, nor live so long." Besides being a warm, hospitable man, he belonged to the time of legends. And with my troubled love for my country, I am still moved by legends. But a political party cannot run on legends. It needs a platform, and a progressive party needs a progressive platform. If Labor fades from memory, there could be room for a social democratic, pro-labor party in Israel -- as long as it is careful to avoid those labels, which have been rendered so politically incorrect.

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