For those unacquainted with the complex and often exasperating world of Israeli politics, Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s recent announcement that he is leaving the Labor party and forming his own political bloc, to be called Atzmaut (“independence” in Hebrew) may not seem like a particularly big deal. In fact, it is a very big deal, and may spell the beginning of a new era in Israeli politics.
Barak’s announcement was, it must be said, more of a shock than a surprise. He has always specialized in unexpected, game-changing moves, and this is no exception. Nonetheless, the writing was on the wall. His own party has despised him for awhile now, mainly because of his insistence on remaining in the Netanyahu government. Even before Barak’s exit, several major players in the Labor hierarchy had announced they were leaving for the centrist Kadima party. While they have since changed their minds, it is clear that Labor has been coming apart at the seams for some time and a split was inevitable.
To a great extent, the entire affair is a symptom of the overall decline of the Labor party and the Israeli left in general. Labor ruled Israel for its first twenty-nine years, and commanded a large following for many decades after, but it has been moribund since the 2000 collapse of the Oslo Accords it championed. It managed a small comeback under the leadership of Amir Peretz, but after his disastrous performance as defense minister during the Second Lebanon War, its fortunes fell once again.
Barak, for all his faults, has managed to keep the party not only viable and relevant, but a major force in the current government. Competing egos and endless arguments over ideological purity made this unsustainable, however, and the results are fairly clear: leadership of the Israeli center-left has now passed to Kadima, and Labor appears to be sagging toward inevitable irrelevancy.