Barak Bolts Labor in Israel

Leaving a historic party’s future in doubt.

Israel was jolted this week when Defense Minister Ehud Barak and four centrists from his Labor Party announced they were splitting from Labor and forming a new faction, called Independence. No one was surprised when the remaining eight, leftist Labor Members of Knesset reacted by saying they were departing the governing coalition.

Seemingly that leaves Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition weakened: with all 13 Labor MKs it had 74 seats out of the 120-member Knesset; with 8 of them now gone, it’s down to 66. But, paradoxically, the coalition is now stronger, since the Labor leftists had been angling to take Labor out of it altogether. The remaining 66 is a rather strong, solid 66—and indeed it turns out Barak’s move was coordinated in hush-hush talks with Netanyahu.

Or as Netanyahu put it, again using the sort of “peace” rhetoric that was once more typical of Israel’s left: “The entire world knows, and so do the Palestinians, that this government will be here for the coming years, and it is with this government that it will have to conduct the peace process.”

In the press conference in which Barak and his four cronies announced their new party, that was one of the charges they leveled at the Labor leftists: that their constant threats to bolt the coalition over a “lack of diplomatic progress” left the Palestinian side with little incentive to negotiate, since they were just waiting for Israel’s government to collapse.

The newly minted Independence faction also charged—quite justly—Labor’s left wing with: serially holding Israel, and Israel alone, responsible for the perceived lack of “progress” with the Palestinians; and even, in more extreme cases, indulging post-Zionist tendencies—or a lack of commitment to maintaining Israel as a Jewish state.

The creation of Independence is, then, a welcome move. It shores up a government that is performing reasonably well in diplomatic, economic, and security spheres; may have spared Israel another pointless round of political turmoil; and projects an image of unity in which center-right and center-left, symbolized by Netanyahu and Barak respectively, work together in facing the country’s formidable challenges.

There’s a price—as noted, playing along with a delusive, U.S. and European-propelled approach to the Palestinians while leaving bad-boy Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Our Home faction almost alone in speaking blunt truths. But with the Palestinian side, for any fair-minded observer—including much of the incoming Congress—blatantly indisposed to compromise, it’s a tolerable price for the time being.

Where, though, does all this leave Labor?

The question resonates deeply in Israel, since it was Labor that led the country for 29 of its first 30 years and is still associated with its founding and early triumphs.

Indeed, it was not for nothing that in this week’s press conference Barak claimed the newly formed party “will be centrist, Zionist and democratic and act according to the legacy of Ben-Gurion”—David Ben-Gurion having been Israel’s first prime minister and Labor’s dominant figure.

In other words, Barak was saying that to be true to Ben-Gurion—to Labor—one had to leave Labor.

Is he right? More so regarding Labor’s security legacy than its economic legacy.

Traditionally Labor was hawkish, realistic about Israel’s neighborhood and leading it to victory in the 1948, 1956, 1967, and—albeit much more problematically—1973 wars. But it was also socialist, saddling Israel with statist structures that it took Netanyahu’s reforms, as finance minister from 2003 to 2005, to partially remove.

In the 1990s, though, Labor, along with its economic leftism, embraced a political leftism in the form of the disastrous, bloody Oslo “process” with Yasser Arafat.

And it is Labor’s left wing today—the folks Barak and his allies have now abandoned—that, like other leftist circles in Israel, still clings to an ossified statism in economics and a reflexive peace-nowism toward the Palestinians and Syria.

Labor’s eventual demise, then, seems to have been written in its socialist genes. But as for an older time when socialists could also be fighting Zionists, the new Independence party—as a Labor offshoot—will make an important contribution if it can partially resurrect it.

And as for what’s left of Labor itself, it’s to be hoped that the Israeli public will keep it, and like-minded elements, electorally marginal.