Trade Unions and Party Politics in Israel: A Decline of Party Identification

Article excerpt

Trends in the 1994 Israeli elections are examined with special reference to factors which influence electoral decisions, and an explanation is presented for the decline of Histradut voting power. Key Words: Israel, Israeli political parties. Histadrut, party identification.

In May 1994, the Labor party had lost, for the first time, its control of the Histadrut - the root organization of the Israeli trade unions - which it had dominated over 74 years.

The 1994 election campaign was meant to be a natural sequel to the way things were up to that point. But reality proved to be different. Up to that election campaign, the Labor party - one of the two major parties in Israel and a dominant party for many years held the absolute majority votes of the Histadrut, at times as high as 75% of the votes. But in 1994, the Labor party shifted, from the majority to the minority, while it achieved merely 33% of the votes.

The year 1994 will be remembered as a significant time of shock to the Histadrut. The voter's verdict has subsequently caused an essential change in the power relations within the Israeli economy. The Histadrut, which functioned not only as a trade union, but as a social movement controlling selected sectors of the Israeli economy - such as settlements, consumerism, finance, health, education and welfare - shrank to a union that represents workers.

In this study we will analyze the issue of the decline in traditional status of the party in the Histadrut organization and in so doing, the weakening of the political parties apparatus and the decline of solidarity with the party by its voters on the one hand, and the rising of the personal dimension of candidates on the other hand. The main question on the agenda in this particular research is: how was this drastic change in the Histadrut possible? The answer lies in several factors: the decline in the importance of party identification, the absence of foreign affairs and security topics together with the right combination of the personal dimension of a new candidate, Chaim Ramon, young and energetic, regarded sympathetically by the press, with an easy-to-understand election issue - the promise to oppose political corruption, to reform the ill-managed apparatus, and to promote a transition to personal politics.

Our research focuses, therefore, on the transition from old politics based on the party apparatus, whereby political power was founded on ideology and ideological messages constituted the linkage between voters and candidates, into a new and more popular approach to politics in which political actors were more independent and communicated with the public through the mass media and not necessarily through the party.

General Background

The political structure of Israel, as a democracy with many focal points of power, makes it difficult to achieve a consensus on many issues, including the economic. In addition, focal points of power in the Israeli society are independent of each other in perceptions, issues and ways of action. Therefore, they are not necessarily guided by competitive market relations of loss and gain alone, but mainly by moral value considerations, bureaucracy, organizations and trade unions. One of the focal points of power in the Israeli society is the Histadrut.

The Histadrut is a unique phenomenon among worker's organizations in the Western world. Whereas in all other countries the establishment of the state preceded the foundation of its trade unions, which then had to struggle for generations to become effectively organized, in Israel the process was reversed; it was established in 1920, 28 years prior to the state's establishment. Not only that, but workers' political parties existed even before the foundation of the Histadrut, which was essentially the creative product of the incipient state's political parties. Moreover, the Histadrut was an ideological movement and also a trade union with the additional idea of actually building up a homeland for the Jewish people. …