With the Exits of Joe Lieberman and Ehud Barak, Is It the End of the Left as We Knew It?


Ehud Barak and Joe Lieberman

This past weekend in synagogue, a friend and newcomer to the shul got her first “good Shabbos” from Sen. Joe Lieberman–and found herself just a bit flustered. But she is a conservative Republican and has spent most of her career around politicos, so what explains her reaction?

It’s true that Lieberman has become something of a celebrity in the practicing Jewish community for his status as a respected senator and Orthodox Jew–one who came quite close to serving as vice president (and who knows after that?). But there is more to Lieberman’s gravitas.

Most Jews I speak with who are politically conservative did not start out that way. If you were Jewish and conservative, chances are your family and friends were not. Back in Jersey, not a single one of my friends was a Republican–yet almost all of them voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and for John McCain in 2008. Why weren’t any of the registered Democrats I knew voting for Democrats?

I think part of the answer has to do with Lieberman’s standing among his fellow Democrats. Between 2000 (when Lieberman ran as Gore’s vice presidential candidate) and 2004, the party had clearly changed. Gore and Lieberman were both hawkish on defense and national security. But Gore soon became a cartoonish dove–just as most Democrats did–simply because the war in Iraq was unpopular.

In 2004, in the midst of two wars, the Democratic Party nominated for president John Kerry. This was a man who famously threw away his Vietnam service ribbons. And the difference in vice presidential nominees could not be starker. The party had traded down from Lieberman to John Edwards.

The party was expelling its last vestiges of foreign policy hawkishness. To Jews, this rang alarm bells. Isolationists and doves had endangered the fight against the Nazis in World War II before Roosevelt, a Democrat, finally got the U.S. involved. Jews suffered under communism, and could rely on Democrats from Harry Truman to Scoop Jackson to fight the good fight. Jews were threatened everywhere by anti-Semitism, and when the United Nations began institutionalizing the practice, the Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan came thundering to the defense of the Jewish community.

Lieberman’s ousting left many Democrats–Jews among them–with a party they did not recognize. But there is another reason for the anxiety among members of the Jewish community: Lieberman’s expulsion from the left mirrored a similar process taking place in Israel.

The Labor party, led by Ehud Barak, had become fragmented over the issue of security as well. Barak remained something of a hawk, as did many others in the party. But the Israeli populace became increasingly disenchanted with the peace process, which had yielded more and more bloodshed as it wore on. Israelis wanted to believe that the Palestinians wanted peace–or at least that enough of them did to swing the leadership in that direction. But when the truth became clear–that the Palestinians were not serious about peace, but were frighteningly serious about eliminating Israel and the Jewish people–the realists among the Israeli left acknowledged it.

So when Ariel Sharon led a move from the right to the center by creating the Kadima party, which would be willing to evacuate settlements in unprecedented numbers but would be tough on Israeli security, many Laborites couldn’t resist joining. And now it has happened again. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, has left Labor, bringing with him four other members of the Knesset and governing coalition.

This is bad news for the Labor party, but excellent news for those who want to see realistic negotiations with the Palestinians as well as those who take the threat of Iran seriously. On the first, here is Evelyn Gordon:

“Like most such splits, this one stemmed partly from personal animosities. But it also had a substantive reason: as one member of the breakaway faction explained, the government will now be able to conduct peace talks ‘without a stopwatch,’ instead of under constant threat that a key coalition faction would quit if Israel didn’t capitulate to Palestinian demands.”

And on the issue of Iran, Aluf Benn clarified in Haaretz:

“Without Barak by his side, Netanyahu would find it hard to advance aggressive moves on the Iranian front. Netanyahu has no military record that grants him supreme defense authority, as Ariel Sharon had. Only Barak, with his ranks and medals, his seniority as a former prime minister, can give Netanyahu this kind of backing.”

The name of Barak’s new party? Atzmaut, meaning Independence. It was under that very same banner that Lieberman ran for his Senate seat in 2006, having been defeated in the Democratic primary by a self-financed sensation of the leftist blogs. It is quite a coincidence that Barak’s formation of Atzmaut came the same week Lieberman announced his retirement.

“What, after all, is a Democrat like me doing at a Republican convention like this,” Lieberman asked the crowd back in 2008, two days before John McCain accepted the Republican nomination for president. “Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m here to support John McCain because country matters more than party.”

When Barak announced the split from Labor and the founding of Atzmaut, here’s what he said: “The top priority will be first and foremost the state, then the party, and only at the end, us.”

If this, as some commentators have suggested, spells the effective end of the Labor party, it should be mourned with sincerity. It has produced true leaders–commanders worthy of their ranks–and guided Israel through its tumultuous and virtuous youth.

It is by no means the end of the Democratic Party, but it does represent the end of the party as many of us knew it. That, too, is unfortunate.

Robert Kagan wrote a Washington Post column in 2006 about Lieberman called “The Last Honest Man.” He wrote that unlike pretty much everyone else on the left–and a number of those on the right–Lieberman didn’t pretend he was fooled into supporting the war in Iraq; he didn’t lie about what he really meant or make excuses for his principles. And for that he was about to lose the Democratic primary. Kagan wrote:

“At least he will be able to sleep at night. And he can take some solace in knowing that history, at least an honest history, will be kinder to him than was his own party.”

Lieberman’s varied political positions rankled Democrats and Republicans simultaneously. Though he caucused with the Democrats, he was unlike them in far too many important ways for there not be a void when he exits. With the wipeout of many of the more moderate Blue Dog Democrats in this year’s midterm elections, and now with Lieberman leaving, the Democratic Party becomes a singled-minded creature.

That is the difference that Lieberman made–that is the difference principled statesmen always make. And it is the reason even Republicans enjoy getting a “good Shabbos” from Joe Lieberman.