By Barry Rubin
A pivotal moment in Israeli political history. The Labor Party, the founding political organization of the state, ruler of the country for its first 29 years, and perennial member of government coalitions has splintered like an undercooked felafel, that is, very messily.
Defense Minister and Labor party leader Ehud Barak has split the party and, along with four other members of parliament, formed a new party, Atzmaout. Of these four–Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Einat Wilf, Deputy Minister of Industry Trade and Labor Orit Noked and Minister of Agriculture Shalom Simchon–only Vilnai is a significant figure due to his distinguished military career. So this will be seen as a personal party for Barak.
The other eight will be the opposition Labor party. They are, to say the least, a mixed bag. Isaac Herzog and Avishay Braverman represent the more yuppie, sophisticated sector of the party. They view themselves as saving Labor by returning it to a more socialist orientation. In fact, though, they distance it from historic constituencies and are not necessarily great politicians. It’s another example of this strange transformation of left-oriented parties into upper middle class elite ones.
They are now paired with two totally different kinds of people–Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Amir Peretz, both failed leaders from the past. Peretz tried to turn the party left in terms of social issues (he was the long-time trade union federation chief), and came close to making it a laughing stock on security issues.
All four of these people could contend for the leadership and tear each other up considerably in the process. None of them is likely to emerge as a really popular politician and none of them–despite Ben-Eliezer’s military career–is credible on national security issues.
The remaining quartet of Shelly Yachimovich, a left-wing journalist; Eitan Cabel, whose main interest is cultural and environmental issues; Daniel Ben-Simon, another former journalist; and Raleb Majadele, the first Arab to hold a ministrial-level appointment is not going to wow the voters either.
Looking over this list of both factions of Labor Knesset members, one is struck by how little talent is here compared to the past. Examining the anti-Barak faction, it seems that only Ben-Eliezer would not fit comfortably into Meretz. And, in sharp contrast to the party’s history–but quite revealingly–three of eight, almost half, come not from the toiling proletariat, the kibbutz movement, or army careers but from the news and entertainment sector.
Here’s the paradox for Labor. The anti-Barak faction can say that Barak is acting too much like the Likud, but Barak’s supporters can just as easily–and a bit more accurately–say that there is nothing to distinguish his rivals from Meretz, that is the far left.
In short, Labor is worse off now than it was before the split, and this might be the final blow to the party as a first-rank political force in Israel.
But why did all this happen and what does it mean? To begin with, this is not just about staying in the government or not. A lot of issues have contributed to this explosion:.
1 Barak was a bad leader. People have been talking about this for a decade. He is not the easiest person to get along with. Like many former generals in politics he gives orders rather than builds coalitions. People have been very unhappy for a long time.
2. The party has been in serious trouble. When parties are in decline, everybody blames everyone else and tempers get short. Votes and seats have been declining. The experiments with leaders other than Barak were catastrophic–an excessively left-oriented nerd (Amram Mitzna) and a spectacularly incompetent fool (Amir Peretz), to put it briefly. The party’s last-remaining giant, Shimon Peres, left it for Kadima. The former leader of the party’s left-wing, Yossi Beilin left it for Meretz.
3. A heated debate over how the party should position itself strategically. Should it retain patronage and some power as part of the government, or should it posture in opposition? In other words, would it lose voters by appearing irrelevant or by appearing to be a client of the ruling Likud party
4. How to position itself in policy terms. Should it move to the left, in the belief that there is now a vaccum on that wing of politics? Or should it stick to the centrist consensus, believing that this is where the nation is today?
5. Individual ambitions. Barak and four other ministers want to hold onto their portfolios. Herzog, Braverman, Ben-Eliezer, and Peretz see themselves as party leaders.
So what does this Labor party do now? It can stay independent and become a middle-sized party or try to form a grand coalition of the left.
The problem with the latter strategy is that the left has no good alternatives nowadays in large part because the Palestinians and Syrians don’t “cooperate” in wanting to make peace. That means the left’s platform is to talk about how much they want a two-state solution and offer even more unilateral concessions.
But that’s not all. The most likely partner, Meretz, has only three seats and has been moving even further to the left, getting in sight of the Communist party. A left party would be lucky to poll ten percent of the vote. Labor voters would flee to the center-left Kadima, where many have already defected.
Who then is the big winner? Paradoxically, it is Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. While he has less support in parliament, he still has a comfortable majority. Barak is now totally dependent on him. Of course, Barak is a winner in that he survives, which was his intention.
The main opposition party, Kadima, could profit by picking up Labor voters. But Kadima’s leader, Tsippi Livni, is really another Barak, an unpopular leader who has performed quite poorly as head of the opposition. That party will have its own leadership battle in future.
One reader asked after reading this article whether the only issue of importance in Israeli politics is the Palestinian issue. That’s not at all what I’m saying. The people who split are not happy with some policies on domestic and budgetary issues but that was not a huge factor.
The main issue, however, was not the Palestinian issue but the leadership struggle and the question of what the party’s orientation should be in future so that it would survive. Barak favored a centrist orientation to compete with Kadima; those who split want to position the party on the left, believing this would return Labor to its historic roots and rally traditional voters.
One might suggest that they are both wrong–certainly at the present. There is no big constituency demanding a left-oriented policy but it is also hard for Labor to compete with Kadima at present. My view is that Barak is more correct: that Labor could have hung on waiting for Kadima to splinter and also discontent build even further with Livni’s really mediocre leadership. As it is, Labor’s collapse will prolong the life of Kadima and perhaps Livni’s leading the party.
What outsiders don’t understand is that Israeli politics are not today a function of internal ideology or personality but a response to an environment where there is no realistic alternative for transforming the regional situation. (At the same time, there are no burning, passionate issues over social or economic policy.)
Israelis learned important lessons during the 1990s’ peace process. They discovered that the Palestinians and Syria are not interested in peace; that the Islamists want to wipe Israel off the map; and that Western allies are not necessarily reliable. The left’s formula–as even Barak came to understand–didn’t work. Wishful thinking is no substitute for realism.
There is absolutely nothing on the horizon, despite a lot of fantasy Western media coverage and policy thinking, to change that. Moreover, the Netanyahu-led government has done a credible job of handling the issues, including maintaining good relations with the Obama Administration. Meanwhile, Israel’s economy is doing remarkably well.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems. But neither are the problems so great, nor the alternatives so obvious or attractive, nor the other candidates for leadership so attractive to provoke a change. Bet on Netanyahu to win another term in office, probably this year.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).