Israeli high-tech leaders try to rescue Labor

AP News
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Posted: Mar 07, 2011 2:31 PM
Israeli high-tech leaders try to rescue Labor

A group of leading Israeli businessmen unveiled an initiative Monday to revive the Labor Party _ the formerly dominant political movement that has stumbled into near irrelevance in recent years.

The plan, led by one of the country's most successful venture capitalists, seeks to put a high-tech face on a stodgy party that has long been dominated by retired generals and smoke-filled-room types.

Erel Margalit, founder of the "Labor Now" movement, said he hoped to recapture the pioneering spirit with which Labor built up the country and led it to independence in 1948. He said Labor should represent Israel's "new pioneers," cultural, educational and business entrepreneurs that have made Israel a high-tech powerhouse.

"We look around, we want to see these kinds of people enter politics," Margalit said in an interview. "In Israel, things can be done. There's a lot of energy."

Margalit, 50, holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in New York, speaks American-accented English and was an aide to former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.

Labor dominated Israeli politics for the country's first three decades, producing famed leaders like founding father David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Israel's current president, Shimon Peres.

Now it has fallen onto hard times. Early this year, its longtime leader, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, defected with several followers to form a new faction in parliament. Labor's remaining delegation was turned into a small opposition movement somewhere in the center of the Israeli political spectrum.

Although Labor has enjoyed a slight bump in popularity since Barak's exit, the party is plagued by infighting and lacks a clear vision. Opinion polls forecast it would remain a midsize faction at best if an election were held now.

Margalit, joined by about a dozen other business leaders at a news conference in Tel Aviv, said he would work to persuade tens of thousands of new people to join Labor in the coming months. He said his goal was to strengthen the party in time for the next parliamentary elections, which are tentatively set to be held in about two years.

He said the party must return to its roots with a social democratic message that promotes economic growth for all sectors of Israeli society, reduces the gaps between rich and poor and pushes harder for peace with the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbors.

Businessman Moshe Gaon told the news conference he joined the initiative because he thinks Israelis are growing indifferent and ignorant of current affairs and because talented Israelis are choosing to stay far away from politics. "This has to stop," he said.

Margalit is the founder and managing partner of Jerusalem Venture Partners, an investment firm that has taken about a dozen companies public. His most famous deal was a $4.8 billion sale of the optical technology firm Chromatis to Lucent Technologies in 2000. It was the largest takeover in Israeli history at the time.

The goal of Margalit and his partners is a radical shake-up of Labor, traditionally a stronghold of unions and retired military officers.

Its current parliament members include Amir Peretz, a former union leader; Shelly Yacimovich, an ex-television journalist; longtime Cabinet minister Isaac Herzog and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a retired general.

Margalit refused to say whether he would seek the party's leadership, but strongly hinted he would consider a run. While praising the current set of Labor politicians, he said they "have yet to present a voice that will clearly resonate with people as potential leadership."

The lawmakers were conspicuously absent from Monday's launch.

In the interview, Margalit repeatedly compared politics to the business world. He said Labor is a "brand that has been battered," called for a "joint venture" with the general public and said the same qualities that have turned Israel into a high-tech powerhouse _ creativity and entrepreneurship _ apply to politics.

Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political scientist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said Labor's days of being a major name in politics are over.

"The brand was already in trouble, and then Barak managed to destroy it altogether," he said.

Wolfsfeld said although it's unlikely Israel will see another prime minister from Labor, the party could remain a voice in Israeli politics if it picks a charismatic leader. He said it would likely be reinvented as a niche party fighting to close social gaps, while leaving the peace process to "the big boys."

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Associated Press writers Daniel Estrin and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.