Analysis: Mutiny and machinations in Israel's 4th largest party

On Tuesday 24 March 2009, Israel's founding party will finish its historical role.

Barak smiles at cabinet meeting 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Barak smiles at cabinet meeting 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
This is how Labor dies. Not with a whimper. Not with a bang. More like assisted suicide. Mark the day, Tuesday 24 March 2009. It is on this day that Israel's founding party 'finishes its historical role'. Regardless of which way the vote in the convention goes on Tuesday, Labor is finished. If Barak wins, Labor will serve as the fig leaf for Netanyahu's 'orange and black' administration, gradually withering away under international diplomatic isolation and economic stress. If Barak loses, he could jump ship and join Bibi, alone or with a few others, while leaving the rest of Labor [what will they call themselves, the Real Labor, True Labor, Provisional Labor, Continuity Labor?] to rot under the long shadow cast by the much bigger Kadima. Seven constantly-bickering opposition MKs won't take Labor over the next electoral threshold. Israel's fourth largest political party, a party of 13 MKs could on Tuesday split in two: one part to die a slow death in the coalition, and the other slowly asphyxiating in the opposition. The real question is which one will die first, and who will suffer the most pain? The social democratic party is tearing itself apart over who is more democratic and who is more social. The bad blood on both sides is boiling, with the rebel camp accusing Barak of undemocratic behavior by appointing a negotiating team without first asking for permission. Barak's camp shot back by accusing Amir Peretz and Ofir Pines-Paz of hypocrisy, saying they held secret talks years ago to merge Peretz's Am Ehad to Labor. What's more democratic than taking a crucial decision to the party's central committee, Barak's camp argues? Two months ago, Ehud Barak appointed Isaac Herzog to rehabilitate the Labor party after its crash to 13 mandates in the last elections. How, portentous, how ironic an appointment that turned out to be! Herzog's decision, whether to join Barak or the rebels, will be the sign that seals Labor's final dismemberment. Labor is beyond rehabilitation. According to a Knesset Channel poll, 61% of Labor members think the party needs to serve in the opposition to rehabilitate itself. Only 39% of Israelis believe that Labor needs to serve in the opposition. So 61% of Israelis think Labor should enter the government for the good of the country. Simply put, the majority of Labor members are completely out of touch with what the general population wants. Even if Barak wins today it will be a pyrrhic victory - he will take a divided Labor into a Netanyahu government [if the 'rebels' agree to come] and only then will his, and Bibi's, real headaches begin. At least 6 Labor MKs will threaten to vote with the opposition on each no-confidence vote in the Knesset. Does Bibi really want all 13 Labor MKs to come over, or does he really only want Barak plus 5? With Likud, Israel Beitenu, Shas, and UTJ, Netanyahu has 58 seats; he needs only 3 more to form a government, if he gets 6 from Labor and 3 from the Jewish Home he'll be happy with 67. If all of Labor's 13 MKs join Bibi will have 71, [and if he adds the Jewish Home] he'll have 74, but that seems unlikely. Avishay Braverman won't be Finance Minister. He'd be a good pick, being a former World Bank executive, but Bibi is running out of Cabinet posts and he'll have to give the Treasury to someone in the Likud, even though he really doesn't want to. Braverman, as an economist, sees the world in terms of lines on graphs, and he sees that a party that zig zags constantly over time displays a steady downward line on a graph. Braverman, the optimist, truly believes he can turn Labor's graph around and push that line up. He's thinking of the good of the party. Barak says he's first doing what's best for the country, its citizens, and only then what's best for the Labor party. But since the election Barak has said many things one way and then acted in a completely other way that one would be forgiven for doubting him. Many in Labor now wish Barak had just never said anything concrete since the elections, wish that he stuck to his famous opaque ambiguity. Why did he have to say "the people have spoken, Labor is going to the opposition?" they ask. Some Labor MKs told Barak to wait a year in the opposition, wait for Bibi to trip over an outpost, and fall face-first onto the White House lawn. Then Labor can saunter back into power. Others told him to enter the government now because the country needs a wide government to deal with the spinning centrifuges in Natanz and the spiraling stocks on Wall Street. In the meantime, Ehud Barak is still minister of defense, but most of the press statements coming out of his office are political. Bibi's government so far looks like this: No loyalty oath, no citizenship; no negotiations on Jerusalem; no two-state solution; no talks on withdrawal from the Golan; more homes across the Green Line; less religious freedom; and more welfare money to people who won't join the job sector. He can't go to Washington with this, and Lieberman can't go to Cairo with this. Read Amir's blog