Israel's Left Cracks Up

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:

  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 run short. Votes and seats have been declining. The experiments with leaders other than Barak were catastrophic.
  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 vacuum on that wing of politics? Or should it stick to the centrist consensus, believing that to be 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.