Analysis: An unlikely rebel

He's the kind of MK a party leader could trust, so why quit now?

On Sunday, Eitan Cabel was walking around the memorial site for the 1967 Battle of Jerusalem on Ammunition Hill. A group of veterans from the Paratroopers Brigade, all of whom are together organizing the 40th anniversary of the battle coming up in two weeks, walked up to him. Cabel might be a minister without a ministry but he assured them that the funds for the celebration had already been earmarked. "He's a good guy," said one normally cynical silver-haired colonel, "he's not much of a politician, but he gets things done." Cabel was the least likely candidate for the role of the first senior member of the coalition to break ranks after the Winograd bombshell. He's a user-friendly politician, as Labor secretary-general he got along with all the rival factions within the party. Despite being a bit of a trouble-maker as a young activist, he quickly calmed down after being elected to the Knesset. With a broad streak of populism, he was active on issues such as improving Israeli football and the rights of reservist soldiers. (He still does his annual reserve duty "and invites the press along to photograph him," said the aforementioned colonel.) He was the kind of MK a party chairman could trust, and was quickly appointed to head committees and comfortably won the vote for secretary general two years ago. So why was Cabel the first to cast a stone on Tuesday, resigning his ministerial post rather than serve in Ehud Olmert's government? He's not just causing problems for the prime minister, he's also putting his preferred candidate for Labor leadership, Ehud Barak in a difficult spot. Barak is under pressure now to announce that if elected, he won't agree to Labor participating in a coalition headed by his old friend Olmert. Cabel's decision might seem like a rare demonstration of principle and probity in politics but there are other reasons why Cabel was the first to relinquish his seat around the cabinet table. For a start, unlike the other Labor ministers, Cabel had no portfolio, he was merely a vote in cabinet. He won't have to give up any power or leave pet-projects in the middle. In addition, he still has his job as secretary general, so unlike his colleagues, resignation doesn't mean relegation to the backbenches. And besides, over the last few months Cabel has been openly deliberating a departure from politics. When you don't expect to go much further in the rat-race, you can afford to have some principles. Labor is a party with no hierarchy, the shockwaves of the defection of Shimon Peres a year and a half ago and Amir Peretz's dismal performance as leader have left a demoralized and fractious party. Whichever of the five candidates wins the May 28 primaries, they'll have an almost impossible job uniting the run-down ranks and then convincing the public that the party that founded the state and ran it for the first three decades can once again be trusted with the reins of power. It will be an uphill struggle, and a dirty fight. Who can blame the 47 year-old Cabel for wanting to get away from all that. Winograd just gave him the opportunity to depart in a more noble fashion.