Israel’s Labor Party — founding political organization of the state, ruler for almost 30 years, perennial party in government coalitions — has splintered like an undercooked falafel: that is, very messily.
Defense Minister and party leader Ehud Barak has split the party, forming a new party, Atzmaut, along with four other members of parliament. Of the four — Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Minister of Agriculture Orit Noked, Minister for Industry, Trade and Labor Shalom Simchon, and Member of Knesset Einat Wilf — 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 the strange transformation of left 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 on social issues — he was the long-time Histadrut trade union federation chief — and came close to making it a laughing stock on security issues.
All four 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 will not wow voters either. Shelly Yachimovich is a left-wing journalist; Eitan Cabel’s main interest is cultural and environmental issues; Daniel Ben-Simon is another former journalist; and Raleb Majadele is the first Arab to hold a ministerial-level appointment.
In short, Labor is worse off now than it was before the split. 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. Several separate issues have contributed to this explosion:
- 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.
- The party has been in serious trouble. When parties are in decline, everybody blames everyone else and tempers run short. Votes and seats have been declining. The experiments with leaders other than Barak were catastrophic.
- 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?
- How to position itself in policy terms. Should it move to the left, in the belief that there is now a vacuum on that wing of politics? Or should it stick to the centrist consensus, believing that to be where the nation is today?
- 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, nowadays, the left has no good alternatives — in large part because the Palestinians and Syrians don’t “cooperate” in wanting to make peace. That leaves as the left’s platform talking about a two-state solution and offering 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, Tzipi 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.
What outsiders don’t understand is that Israeli politics today is not a function of internal ideology or personality but a response to an environment where there is no realistic alternative for transforming the regional situation.
Israelis learned important lessons during the peace process of the 1990s. They discovered that the Palestinians and Syria are not interested in peace. They realized that the Islamists want to wipe Israel off the map. And they concluded 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.