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.
It is true that Barak must shoulder some of the blame for this. The former general is famously inept at the niceties of politics, and there is no doubt that his tendency toward micro-management and his legendary interpersonal obtuseness played a role in his party’s rejection of him. But this is not enough to explain the current crisis in the Labor party, which is, to a great extent, a crisis of the Israeli left in general.
The main reason for this crisis is, in fact, a simple one: For the most part, the Israeli left still has not accepted the massive shift in Israeli attitudes caused by the failure of the Oslo Accords and the carnage of the second intifada. The more cautious, skeptical, and pragmatic outlook of Kadima is far more appealing to center-left Israeli voters today than Labor’s idealistic faith in the peace process and the goodwill of the Palestinians.
Unfortunately, those on the left who have accepted this, and Barak is one of them, are generally considered traitors and collaborators by the true believers in their own parties. The purging of Barak is yet more proof that the Israeli left remains unwilling to deal honestly with its current predicament.
To a certain extent, however, this no longer matters. For decades, the primary dividing line between Labor and Likud was the issue of territorial compromise. This cause has now been taken up by Kadima, and even elements of the Likud are no longer as ferociously opposed to it as they once were. They have now been joined by Barak’s new party, whose ideology remains fuzzy, but one can be assume that it will follow the policies advocated by its leader, which are essentially indistinguishable from Kadima’s.
The Labor party, in other words, and the type of messianic left it represents, is swiftly becoming extraneous to Israeli politics. Whether this latest split will prove to be the death knell for the party is uncertain. But it certainly does testify to the extent that Israeli politics has fundamentally changed over the past decade. There is no doubt that for the party which once dominated every aspect of Israeli society, the fall has been a long and tragic one; all the more so because, as is usually the case, it has been almost entirely self-inflicted.