Analysis: A split that just might fit

Barak's break off from Labor may have strengthened the coalition and the peace process, but how it helped Labor is a tougher sell.

Barak press conference 311 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Barak press conference 311
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak took pains on Monday to explain how Barak’s break-off from Labor, the resignation of three ministers and the departure of eight MKs from the coalition ironically strengthened both the coalition and the peace process.
Meanwhile, the remaining politicians in Labor tried to explain how the split in their party could actually strengthen it in the long run.
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All three items were a tough sell on what appeared to be a tough day for the coalition, the peace process and – of course – Labor.
But they just might have a point.
Let’s start with the coalition.
Netanyahu has made clear for a long time that it was very important for him to keep Barak in his government.
Netanyahu has a tremendous amount of respect for Barak, who was his commander in the IDF’s elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit. He wants Barak to be in charge when key defense decisions are made, especially about Iran, which is by far the most important issue for Netanyahu.
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And Barak provides an important service to Netanyahu. He gives him the endorsement of a former prime minister with proven peace credentials, who tells the world that Netanyahu can deliver a diplomatic agreement.
It is important for Netanyahu to be seen by the world as the leader of not just the Likud or the Right, but a consensus of Israelis from moderate Left to moderate Right. Keeping Barak and four other former Labor MKs in his coalition enables him to continue to portray himself as such.
The coalition lost the votes of eight rebels and wavering ministers who could never really be depended on anyway.
It received the guaranteed votes of the five most loyal Labor MKs, who would have had to leave the coalition if a Labor convention had been held last month and passed a proposal to quit.
These five MKs, who can no longer justify leaving the coalition in the future, could help Netanyahu keep his government together until 2013.
How can the departure of ministers pushing for peace ironically help achieve it? First of all, there is no longer the artificial deadline of reaching a diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians by the date of the Labor convention. Now new diplomatic ideas can be pursued quietly without fear that they will have to be revealed to the public in order to justify staying in the coalition to antsy Labor ministers.
The strengthening of the coalition sends a message to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and US President Barack Obama that they cannot just wait for Netanyahu’s government to fall. They are stuck with him for the foreseeable future, so they will have to deal with him now.
Netanyahu will now want to prove to Barak that he made the right decision to stay. And that means that serious diplomatic concessions are likely on the way.
The toughest sell is how this could help Labor.
The split in the party could be a knockout punch that could prevent Labor from recovering in time for the next election.
But on the other hand, if the split was inevitable, it was much better for the party that it happened now and not in the months ahead of an election. Now Labor has time to elect a new leader and rebuild itself in his or her image in the opposition.
Barak was more self-destructive than any other force in Labor. His departure could end up saving the party and giving it new life.