Yesterday, Ehud Barak – the leader of the supposed centrist party in Israel that was meant to act as a counter to the strong rightist parties in Netanyahu’s coalition – announced the end of the Labor party, the end of the peace process and the end of democratic procedures within Israel’s government. Barak, who had been under extreme pressure by his own Labor party because of his poor leadership and increasing shift to the right, abruptly resigned from the party and formed a new party – Atzmaut (Independence) – dragging four other MKs with him. The result was the resignation of the rest of the Labor party from the government and Barak et al.’s allegiance to Netanyahu and Likud. The messy internal political maneuvering of Barak, in a addition to killing the peace process, labor and democracy in Israel, has also seemed to solidify FM Avigdor Lieberman as the most power Israeli politician.
First, the peace process – if it wasn’t dead already, it was in the ICU – is officially terminated. The ruling coalition in Israel is now completely and undoubtedly devoid of anyone with a toe in the peace camp. There is no pressure on Netanyahu to make any type of concessions for peace; indeed, there is now even stronger pressure on the prime minister to hold strong in the face of those calling for an end of the occupation. Labor was supposed to play the role of centrist in the coalition. Now there is only the right. Moreover, now Netanyahu has the leverage to push responsibility (or perceived responsibility) for failure onto the Palestinians by offering a peace plan that would immediately be rejected as insufficient. There is hardly a splinter of a chance that the current government will or can agree on any time of return for Palestinian refugees or a division of Jerusalem. Barak, by shifting the coalition to the right without bringing Netanyahu down, has effectively removed all chance for peace before the next election.
Second, the labor party – the party of molded after Ben Gurion – is dying and will soon be no more. Once seen as a lasting force in Israeli politics, Labor holds only eight seats now, with more MKs pondering switching parties. Barak, when he was head of Labor, moved the party closer to Netanyahu’s Lukid party, jumping to the right of Kadima and essentially losing any distinctive character. Labor once represented the center-right. Under Barak, it uncomfortably became indistinguishable from the extreme right and, now that it has split, it has little public backing and perhaps less definition. While it is possible, that it could be revived, it is extremely unlikely:
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.
[tweetmeme] Third, Barak’s resignation was merely an attempt to preempt Labor efforts to remove him as leader of the party. Dissatisfaction with Barak was extremely high among Labor MKs and their followers and many believed that the defense minister’s political career would be over within months. Barak used a loophole in a governmental system that lacks a constitution in order to save himself from will of democracy. Once again, from Marc Lynch:
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.
Fourth, Avigdor Lieberman, the racist, extremist Foreign Minister, is officially the most powerful politician in Israel. Netanyahu now holds the slimmest of majorities together in his coalition (66 of 120 MKs). If Barak were to withdraw his new party (the only coalition party nominally to the left of Likud) from the coalition, Netanyahu would still be afloat. By contrast, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party holds 15 seats and is therefore indispensable. Already playing a major role in Israeli politics (“the mainstream“) despite being accused of serious corruption, Barak’s maneuvering made Lieberman the de facto leader of the ruling coalition.
Indeed, Barak maintains that he is representing the peace camp in the coalition when in fact he is no more than a puppet for Netanyahu. Similarly, while Bibi is the nominal head of the government, he is no longer the one ruling the country.
In reality, though, Barak’s move makes little change to the landscape of Israeli politics. Labor has never truly been part of the peace camp and was slowly dying already. The occupation was making a mockery of the term ‘Israeli democracy’ long before Barak became relevant and Lieberman was already an increasingly powerful and popular politician. Certainly, this moves Israeli politics farther to the right, and places yet more clouded doubts on the prospects of peace, but is there a meaningful difference between extreme right and more extreme right and can you kill a process that is already dead?
Photo from Family Families