Israel Pulse

Could retired Maj. Gen. Golan save Israel’s Labor Party?

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Article Summary
Former Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan is a breath of fresh air in Israeli politics, bringing a clear worldview and showing no interest in ingratiating himself with the soft right in order to win a few more votes.

On June 3, Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay phoned former Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan to inform him that he could run for the leadership of the party in next month’s primaries. Less than a week after the Knesset defied all logic by dissolving itself, Maj. Gen. Golan (res.) is asked to make a decision. He must make up his mind much sooner than he anticipated, and decide whether he is willing to dive right into politics, and if so, in which political framework?

Golan retired from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) last year after failing to win appointment as the next chief of staff. Because the 21st Knesset dissolved itself so quickly, the official “cooling-off period” has already expired, making him eligible to compete in the upcoming election in September. Golan has spent the past few months preparing himself on the public front lines, offering penetrating interviews in which he presents a comprehensive worldview that positions him on the political left. At the same time, he has been signaling that his next career will be in politics. Now he has a chance to enter politics in the most fortuitous circumstances.

But on which platform? He does not have many choices. Blue and White is not really an option: It already has its fair share of former chiefs of staff, and the leadership is crowded as it is. Furthermore, interviews he has given since leaving the IDF indicate that he is aiming at a leadership position. Also, he has presented a comprehensive and detailed worldview that is not in accord with the Blue and White Party’s platform combining left and right.

In an April interview with the TV newsmagazine Uvda, Golan said that the debate over the peace process is underdeveloped. “The basic debate should be over annexation or disengagement,” he said. “That is the heart of the issue. There is no way to avoid disengagement. The vision of two states for two peoples living beside each other in peace is too remote for us to achieve right now.”

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That is why, given all the options, and assuming that Golan has decided to enter politics, the Labor Party is his natural element. It seems that he shares the same ideological profile as the party’s members and electorate. At the same time, the party is facing a serious and longstanding crisis in leadership during Avi Gabbay’s tenure, and it is not at all certain that it can recover. Then there is the unimaginable nadir of the last election, when the party won just six seats.

Two Knesset members, former Labor Party Chairman Amir Peretz and Stav Shaffir, have already announced that they plan to compete to succeed Gabbay in the top leadership position. Also weighing the possibility are Knesset members Itzik Shmuli and Tal Russo, while former Prime Minister Ehud Barak seems to be signaling that he is interested in a comeback. Anyone who has spoken with Golan in recent days comes away with the impression that he is on the way to announce his intentions, too. Senior party members tell Al-Monitor that Golan has been holding a series of consultations on the matter over the last few days. He has been helped in this by his son Uriah, who served as chief of the campaign staff for Yaya Fink, who came in eighth in the Labor Party primaries in February. Golan is also speaking with former party chair Shelly Yachimovich, who wields considerable influence among the Labor Party’s 60,000 official members. As such, it is safe to assume that he has already collected the information he needs about the internal breakdown of power within the party.

Meanwhile, time is of essence. Golan cannot push off his final decision for much longer. On June 4 the Labor leadership scheduled an open primary for the position of party chairman for July 2. This would leave Golan with just one month to prepare. His advantages are the breath of fresh air that he brings with him, the fact that he is a well-known public figure and his distinguished military career. He has been considered a true professional in every position he held and as someone who combines a sharp mind and the boldness needed to follow his own truths. It was likely this very trait that kept him from promotion to chief of staff.

Golan got himself into trouble with an admonitory speech he delivered at a Holocaust Day memorial event while he was still in uniform three years ago. Speaking as a representative of the IDF, he said: “If there is something that frightens me in the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying horrifying processes that occurred in Europe … 70, 80 and 90 years ago and finding evidence of their existence here in our midst, today, in 2016.”

His remarks inevitably caused a public stir. Yet Golan refused to walk them back, even though he did issue a clarification. In an interview he gave last week, right after the Knesset dissolved itself, Golan hinted that he intended to enter politics now. When asked where he positions himself on the political spectrum, he responded, “I support disengagement from the Palestinians and a free but compassionate economy. I want my country to have the kind of cultural and educational vision that will propel us to first place in the world in many different fields. At the same time, I also believe that we must take the initiative on security matters concerning the surrounding region. Today we have an unusual opportunity to do just that.”

Indeed, there can be no doubt that Golan is a breath of fresh air for the Israeli left. This is a man with a clear worldview and with no desire to ingratiate himself with the soft right in order to win a few votes — a strategy that has failed the party repeatedly over the past few years. On the other hand, this could also hinder him from integrating into the political realm, which demands flexibility and compromise. What this means is that Golan would have to learn to maneuver.

The Blue and White Party was unsuccessful in its efforts to win votes from the Likud in the April election, despite all its efforts to attract a right-leaning electorate by downplaying its diplomatic positions and including candidates from the ideological right such as two former aides to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Zvi Hauzer and Yoaz Hendel. In fact, most of its 35 seats still came from the center-left.

The Labor Party experienced serious convulsions in the last election. Its own base abandoned the party, because it failed to offer an ideological platform where that base could feel at home. Then it was learned that Gabbay was prepared to join a Netanyahu coalition despite the fact that he had described Netanyahu beforehand as corrupt. This was the climax in a crisis of trust between the handful of remaining Labor Party stalwarts and the party’s leadership.

Now the Labor Party has a chance to return to its natural element. It can grow itself in the September election and regain some of the influence it once had. It does not offer an alternative to the current government, nor can it strive to do so at present. Still, it is incumbent on the party to reaffirm its position as the natural home for Zionist voters on the left. Both Golan and Peretz offer this possibility. They both speak in a clear voice about presenting an ideological alternative to the Likud, which extends beyond the jingoism of “Anyone but Netanyahu.”

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Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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