SOMETIMES TWENTY SEATS CAN SEEM LIKE A whole lot more, especially if you listen to the leaders of Israel's Labor Party analyzing the significance of their own groundbreaking achievements in Israel's 2006 elections. Under the circumstances, Labor didn't just poll well (unlike the Likud, it held onto all of its Knesset seats); it also created something far more lasting: a new public sensibility about the necessity of addressing Israel's mounting social crises. Now, nearly every Israeli political party must declare its willingness to confront Israel's mounting social and economic problems and propose a viable plan of action.
One need look no further than Israeli neo-conservatism's most historically influential proponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, to see how profoundly the emergence of this discourse shook up Israel's political establishment. Desperately seeking votes to shore up his rapidly shrinking Likud party, towards the end of the election campaign the former finance minister found himself apologizing to those who'd been adversely affected by his ruthless economic policies. For such a notoriously unapologetic ideologue to acknowledge criticisms of his free market politics clearly meant that Israeli politicians were taking the public's embrace of these concerns seriously.
From the opposite side of the tracks, the objections to Labor's electoral strategies raised by many peace activists after the election also attested to the significance of Labor's achievement. Why choose to focus on economic issues when the Left's chief responsibility ought to be convincing the Israeli public to accept a bilateral and comprehensive withdrawal to the 1967 borders? By choosing to concentrate its electoral efforts on addressing domestic problems, the Labor Party had essentially conceded to Kadima the battle over the character of the forthcoming withdrawals, and in doing so had failed to offer an alternative foreign policy ideologically consistent with its questionable domestic agenda.
Clearly, Labor has something to boast about. Forcing Israel's Right into a defensive posture on economic issues and drawing intense criticism about its electoral priorities from fellow progressives, Labor's social platform succeeded in moving Israeli political discourse to the Left in a manner entirely analogous to how Ariel Sharon's December 2004 decision to disengage unilaterally from the Occupied Territories helped legitimate the Israeli public's growing discomfort with the Occupation. …