The parliamentary faction representing the party that
founded and built the state of Israel and that dominated its governments for
decades was today reduced to mere single digits -- Israel's Labor Party now has
eight members in the Knesset. This latest dilution resulted from a move that
took everyone by surprise, enacted by its now-erstwhile leader, still the
country's defense minister, Ehud Barak.
To make any sense of the shock that has just convulsed
Israeli politics, a very brief primer is in order. Israel is a parliamentary
democracy in which the country is a single electoral district and members of
the parliament, the Knesset, are elected on party lists according to a pure
system of proportional representation (with a threshold of two percent for entering
parliament). The system has always made for a proliferation of parties being
represented in the Knesset, for government by coalition, with various rules
being introduced over the years to prevent too much horse-trading, including
one stipulating that for a new faction to split away from an existing party and
be recognized with full rights in parliament, the breakaway faction must
constitute at least one-third of the members of the mother party.
Ehud Barak took four fellow members of Labor's Knesset grouping
with him to form the Atzmaut or
Independence faction, thereby meeting that one-third bar (Labor had a total of
13 seats, the Knesset is a 120 seat parliament). The relevant Knesset committee
has already approved the split and recognized Barak's new faction. The five-member Atzmaut will continue to serve in Netanyahu's coalition
government and Barak will remain minister of defense. The rump Labor faction,
with eight MKs, has announced its intention to quit the coalition, and the
three ministers belonging to this faction all tended their resignations in the
course of today (Benjamin ‘Fuad' Ben-Eliezer, Trade and Industry; Yizhak ‘Buji'
Herzog, Welfare; and Avishai Braverman, minister for Minorities).
The most popular metaphor for now in the Israeli press
harkens back to Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu's days in the Israeli army
elite unit, the Sayeret Matkal - that
this political move was a precision-planned, lightning and secret strike that
took the enemy (in this case, the Labor Party that Barak himself was leader of
while planning the mission as well as the opposition Kadima Party) by surprise.
Why did Barak do it? Why now?
Since formally returning to politics in 2007 after a
six-year hiatus in the private sector, Ehud Barak's hold on the Labor Party has always been somewhat
tenuous. In the last general election in 2009 Barak led Labor into its
worst-ever result, with the party slipping not only to 13 seats but also now
becoming only the fourth largest in the Knesset, having never before in history
been out of the top two. During nearly two years serving in a hard-rightist
coalition not only with Likud but also with Avigdor Lieberman and the
religious-orthodox right, Labor's popularity slipped even further, and talk of
quitting the coalition became a constant background hum.
In recent months, as a slew of anti-democratic and racist
legislative initiatives were advanced by Labor's government allies and as even
the façade of a functioning peace process was removed (and Labor's
justification for being in the coalition was to ‘save the peace process'), many
Labor ministers felt uncomfortable in the government and attacked its policies.
The end was near. Several MKs were
pushing to bring forward party leadership elections to unseat Barak and to pull
Labor out of the government. Convening the party's institutions to vote on
these initiatives seemed imminent.
In other words, the Barak-led split was a preemptive move.
This maneuver allowed Ehud Barak to maintain some control of the situation and
take the initiative, rather than waiting for his party rivals to define the
next moves. Had he waited any
longer, it might have been more difficult for the other four MKs to jump ship,
and all four seem to have been offered plum jobs, mostly ministerial.
The name of the new faction, "Independence," is being
treated with deep irony, it is anything but that. It is as much a creation of
Netanyahu's as it is Barak's, and is dependent on the former's good will. The
only part of today's drama that surprised no one was that Ehud Barak himself
would betray the Labor Party in order to save his own political skin.
Bizarrely for someone who has twice served as leader, Barak
has never struck deep roots in the party. Barak joined Labor when Yizhak Rabin
made him a minister in 1995, only six months after ending his 35-year military
career. Within two years he was party leader, and two years after that, prime
minister. His political career has been punctuated by the occasional police
investigation and allegation of corruption, but even more consistently by a
prevailing sense that he was a Trojan horse inside both the Labor Party and the
Israeli peace camp.
Barak had already tried to morph the Labor Party into
something else when he subsumed Labor under the "One Israel" banner in the 1999
election. Many consider Barak to have single-handedly snuffed out the remains
of Israel's peace camp when Barak himself declared there was no Palestinian
partner after the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000. The "No
Partner" meme has become a defining motif of the Israeli discourse ever
since. Barak presided over the
total loss of support for Labor amongst the Palestinian Arab population in
Israel, and once Kadima was formed, mostly as a Likud breakaway, and later when
serving in the Kadima-led Olmert government, Barak chose to relocate Labor from
its natural place - to the left of Kadima - to a more hawkish centrist position
to Kadima's right.
Ehud Barak was PM when the second Intifada started and
initiated the assassinations policy against mid-level political in addition to
resistance leaders on the Palestinian side; he oversaw a massive upturn in
settlement growth and was defense minister during Operation Cast Lead.
Alongside all of that, Barak pulled Israel out of southern Lebanon in May 2000,
ending an 18-year occupation. But he did so unilaterally - having recanted on a
prospective peace deal with Syria at the last moment - and in doing so he
greatly embellished the popularity and reputation of Hezbollah.
Perhaps Barak's political career has simply been a
reflection of the inevitable Israeli shift to the right given 40 years of
occupation and the ongoing inability to create a liberal narrative for what the marriage of a
Jewish and democratic state might look like. Many though would argue that Barak
himself, more than Lieberman or Netanyahu or any other politician, has been the
harbinger of the deeply illiberal winds blowing through Israeli politics today.
What next for Netanyahu's coalition?
When rump Labor's departure from the coalition is formalized
Netanyahu will be left with a majority of 66 MKs out of 120, and typically all
sides are claiming victory. PM Netanyahu is asserting that his coalition is
being strengthened while opposition leader Livni is insisting that this is the
beginning of the end for Netanyahu's government. And both have an element of
truth on their side. It is probably more accurate to look at this development
as Netanyahu having gained four loyal coalition members, than having lost
eight. Most of those who have now quit tended to vote against the government in
parliament anyway. All had one foot out the door.
The bigger threat to Bibi was to lose all 12 Labor MKs (I
say 12 rather than 13 as the assumption, for me at least, was that even if
Labor left, Ehud Barak would stay on alongside Netanyahu), and to lose all of
Labor in circumstances not of his choosing and potentially more damaging to his
premiership. By retaining the five members who have now become the Atzmaut faction, Netanyahu's coalition has more of a cushion
(62 becomes a very narrow coalition indeed), and he also now continues with
relative confidence that there are no more potential departures in his
coalition due to foot-dragging on peace.
In as much as there is ever certainty in Israeli politics,
this development has also laid to rest the option of Kadima joining Netanyahu's
coalition and the idea frequently floated of a Likud-Kadima-Labor governing
formation in this Knesset.
The opposition has been strengthened, not only numerically
but also by removing the fig leaf of national unity and centrist positioning
that Netanyahu's government claimed by virtue of Labor being a partner. While
it is true that Ehud Barak and the other four ex-Laborites are still there, the
storyline in the media and in the political world will be unequivocal - that
this was a cynical and self-indulgent move by Barak and friends, and that
anything remaining of the social-democratic or center-left parliamentary camp
in Israel now exclusively resides on the opposition benches. It will also now
be easier for Livni to paint this government as a narrow rightist religious
coalition (although to be fair, the government was doing a rather good job of
that on its own).
And one must not forget the disagreements and instability
within Netanyahu's governing majority over a number of domestic issues, mainly
in the arena of the religious/secular divide. Netanyahu will now be more
dependent than ever on the Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu parties and their
respective leaders, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Foreign Minister Avigdor
Lieberman. They are currently at loggerheads over a piece of legislation
relating to religious conversions conducted inside the Israeli army. A
government-threatening coalition crisis involving one or both of these parties
could erupt at any moment.
Netanyahu is already under severe criticism in demonstrating
insufficient leadership and for allowing Lieberman and Yishai to set the
national agenda - the prime minister's poll numbers are down, and these trends
will likely be exacerbated by the new coalition reality. And there is another
known unknown that awaits the prime minister's coalition - a decision is due to
be taken in the coming weeks over whether to pursue charges in an investigation
into Foreign Minister Lieberman's financial dealings that stretches back over
more than a decade.
What does this mean for peace efforts and the Obama
In responding to today's political development, Prime
Minister Netanyahu made a point of saying that all those who are banking on his
political implosion, and notably the Palestinians, should get the message that
it is time to deal with him and return to negotiations. He even blamed Labor's
departing ministers for encouraging the Palestinians stay-away from the
negotiating table. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders' respective chief
emissaries, Izhak Molcho and Saeb Erakat, have both been in Washington over the
past few days, but the Israeli-Palestinian talks, fleetingly resumed in
September, remain stillborn.
The Labor Party split serves to clarify rather than change
the existing political dynamic - one of absolute impasse on the
Israeli-Palestinian front. There is no prospect of meaningful change being
generated internally by the Israeli side. Netanyahu is now under even less and
perhaps no pressure from his coalition to do anything on the peace front. The
US has so far decided not to step into this vacuum with a clear effort of its
It may be that Netanyahu considers that the time will soon
be ripe to introduce an initiative of his own, the logic being that, assuming
US timidity, he is in a strong position and that he rather than the
Palestinians can define the agenda for 2011. Any such Netanyahu initiative is
likely to be extremely limited in its scope - forget any settlement evacuations
or serious territorial adjustments and think instead of more economic projects,
attempts to entrench the PA as a subcontractor for Israel, and perhaps the
notion of a vaguely defined and territorially inconsequential Palestinian
Despite the (now somewhat revised) calming assessments of
Israel's outgoing Mossad chief regarding Iran's nuclear program, Netanyahu has
also been upping the ante on that front, demanding that a credible military
threat be on the table. Add to the mix the renewed tensions in Lebanon; the
replacement of the current crop of somewhat cautious leadership figures in
Israel's security establishment (the heads of the IDF, Mossad,
and Shin Bet have either just switched or are about to); Barak-Netanyahu's need
to show leadership and purpose and their willingness to work with an equally
willing Republican congressional leadership in cornering Obama -- a period of
instability and brinkmanship replete with danger may well be on the horizon.
A divided Palestinian leadership - able to take piecemeal
initiatives but bereft of strategic direction - and the neighboring Arab states
that are now even more regime-maintenance skittish and obsessed following
protests at home and the overthrow of President Ben-Ali in Tunisia, are
unlikely to be driving the agenda for change.
Faced with all of this, the US may throw up its hands. In
fact, distancing itself from a discredited and demeaning peace process might
well be one of the better options that the US has. Were the administration to
tell the parties that it is ready to reengage only when they themselves
demonstrate real seriousness and purpose or to be more honest and also more
risky, to lay the dead cat at Netanyahu's door, then some US credibility might
be restored the domestic debate inside Israel could be constructively shaken
The US will still, though, have to be making daily decisions
on how it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to be dealing with the resonance
that the Palestinian issue and America's role in failing to resolve it has
throughout the region. Absent US leadership we are likely to see more
initiatives gather pace in the international diplomatic arena (such as UN
resolutions and recognition of a Palestinian state on 67 lines) and the danger
of local tensions escalating into conflict. If the US places itself on the
wrong side of these developments, wielding its UN veto, or failing to stand up
to an ever-more pugnacious Netanyahu-Lieberman-led Israeli government for
instance, then one can expect a further and perhaps worrying erosion of
America's ability to wield influence and power, to build alliances, overcome
adversaries, and avoid bloodshed.
A requiem for Israel's Labor Party
First as Mapai, then
as the Alignment (or Ma'arakh),
and more recently as Labor, one political movement defined the first half of
Israel's 60 years and has been a key shaper of Israel's history
throughout its existence. For half a century from 1949 to 1999 and through 14
Knesset election cycles, Labor under its various guises dropped below 40 seats
on only three occasions and never below 30. As of today, Labor is in
single-digits with only eight seats, and the end of Labor Israel would be an
event of historical magnitude. Barak's departure was devised together with
Likud leader Netanyahu. It is fair to say that for the last two years Barak has
been playing the Labor Party according to a musical score written by Netanyahu.
In effect, Likudniks have been running all of Israel's four largest parties -
Netanyahu was and remains Likud and has also been running Labor by remote
control via Ehud Barak (as just became crystal clear), Lieberman and Livni both
grew up politically in the Likud.
For the time being, Israel's future will be decided
according to how political and ideological arguments play out within the Likud
revisionist camp. That is a reality that would have seemed inconceivable to Israel's
founders, although they are perhaps partly to blame for never developing a
sufficiently progressive and inclusive vision of Israeli democracy, ceding the
ideological debate at key moments to a more narrow, nationalist agenda which
eventually became the majority and is now utterly hegemonic.
Labor may continue to exist - for now, that is uncertain. In
withdrawing from the coalition various party leaders argued that this has
created a new opportunity to rebuild the party. Others, including from within
the bloc of the eight remaining Labor MKs, have already started to eulogize
the party and some may about to jump ship to Kadima. The internal rivalries,
the network of divided and demoralized local party branches, the thoroughly
tarnished image and the large financial debt are just some of the reasons for
hedging against any real revival of Labor's fortunes anytime soon. The main
hope, as ever, is that a charismatic leader would appear and magically
transform the party.
While part of today's story was the witnessing of yet
another petty political maneuver, one in a long series, from another
perspective the meaning of today goes far deeper. First, if Israel is to be a
functioning liberal democracy long into the future, one that is in any way
recognizable to its supporters in the West (who are not religiously-oriented), then a new progressive camp will ultimately have to build itself.
That camp will not emerge from the Knesset machinations of factions within
factions of a party. It would have to be part of a longer process that
thoroughly examines Labor's failings and that creates a new and progressive
democratic story of Israel and Israel's future.
Outside of parliament, that progressive democratic camp is
beginning to take shape. 20,000 demonstrated in Tel Aviv this past Saturday
night against the McCarthyite interrogation of human rights NGOs just initiated
by the Knesset. Crucially this camp will have to take an egalitarian approach
and be integrally made up of both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis (Labor failed
in that mission long ago). It will not be competing for political power anytime
soon but it is crucial for Israel that it be part of the political debate.
Second, a parliamentary democracy like Israel's, especially
in a country without a constitution, can only exist if there are strong party
structures and a sufficient democratic consensus on how the country is
governed. Both are under threat, and Ehud Barak today, in what was perhaps his
political swansong, chose to further undermine an already fragile Israeli
democracy. By any standards, Barak's act was a deeply undemocratic act. The
very phenomenon of military generals going straight into politics, the story of
Ehud Barak, is a problematic one. The inability to sustain democratically
functioning party political structures which citizens are intimately involved
in would be devastating for Israel. Many of Israel's parties are religious or
strongman fiefdoms, and the traditional parties of the center have either not
yet established proper procedures (Kadima), seen those procedures eroded
(Likud), or simply collapsed (Labor). Israel's parliamentary democracy cannot
survive if representative party political structures fall by the wayside.
Third, the immediate and fundamental questions facing
Israel's future will be, as described above, decided in a fight between
competing versions of the Jabotinskyite tradition (Ze'ev Jabotinsky was the
founder of Revisionist Zionism, the forerunner to the Likud Party). Jabotinsky
was a territorial maximalist in his time and committed to the role of force and
power in achieving the goals of Jewish nationalism. But he also was in many ways a pragmatic realist and
actually a liberal when it came to equality for Arabs. Israel is facing a
choice between a fascist mutation of Jabontinskyism and a liberal mutation of
Jabotinskyism, and with Labor dead, it is a Likud family affair.
Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New
America Foundation and is an editor of the Middle East Channel.