The Barak Bombshell

If Labor’s re-energized activists manage to resuscitate the fractured party, a totally new political map may evolve.

Labor Party 521 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
Labor Party 521 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
IF THE NEW ENERGY AND GIDDY elation among the rank and file is anything to go by, the news of the once allpowerful Labor party’s demise may have been premature.
It is three days after party leader Ehud Barak’s dramatic defection and the conference hall at Beit Berl, the party headquarters, is packed to capacity. Even veterans like Uzi Baram, who have long been absent from party meetings of any description, are back.
“Our party has come to life. We haven’t seen anything like this for years,” Yitzhak Herzog, who had just resigned as social affairs minister, and hopes to take over the party leadership, declares from the rostrum. “I look at you friends and I don’t believe my eyes. The energy, the vitality, the curiosity, the commitment,” intones Shelly Yacimovich, another prospective leadership candidate.
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There is widespread agreement with Herzog’s assessment of Barak’s departure as akin to the removal of a “hump” from the party’s back. The high spirits stem partly from a sense of having been freed from a cavalier leadership style and finally empowered to make long overdue ideological and organizational changes. “Anyone who walks into this hall today feels that we can. Yes, we can,” exhorts former party leader Amir Peretz, echo-ing US President Barack Obama’s energizing 2008 election slogan.
But just how significant are the new energies released by Barak’s departure? Does Labor have a real chance of again becoming a major party or will it struggle simply to survive? Some analysts predict further tremors, with other parties splitting in Labor’s wake, until a totally new political landscape takes shape. They argue that there could be further breakaways from the Likud and Kadima, as well as from what remains of the Labor party.
In their view, the aftershocks from the November 2005 “big bang,” when Ariel Sharon broke away from the Likud to form Kadima, are still rumbling.
The latest tremors started on January 17, when Barak split Labor’s Knesset faction by leaving with four other legislators, Shalom Simchon, Matan Vilnai, Orit Noked and Einat Wilf, to form Atzmaut or “Independence,” which remains part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
The move, coordinated between Netanyahu and Barak, virtually guaranteed Netanyahu a full term as prime minister until 2013 – (although theoretically they could, neither Yisrael Beiteinu nor Shas is expected to precipitate an early election) – and enabled Barak to retain the Defense Ministry.
The move preempted strong pressure from other Labor leaders to bolt the government, leaving Barak without the defense portfolio and Netanyahu with a narrow right-wing coalition and the prospect of having to call an early election he might lose. Barak’s ploy – splitting the party he led and on whose ticket he had been elected – was roundly condemned as one of the most cynical and opportunist in Israeli political history. And for many pundits, it also seemed to hand the ailing Labor party its coup de grâce.
Ironically, though, Barak’s departure seems to have given the party a new lease on life, at least for the time being. The eight Knesset members who remained, although operating in two different factions of four and with some barely on speaking terms, have promised to bury the hatchet and work together to rebuild the party from the bottom up. They immediately pulled out of the government, putting down a strong ideological marker with a view to rebuilding their electoral base from the opposition benches.
Party activists claim that the initial response has been overwhelmingly positive. “We have been flooded with membership applications in numbers we never dreamed of. People who said, ‘We won’t go anywhere near the party as long as Barak the capitalist is there’ are now queuing up to join,” Yair Fink of the party’s Young Guard tells The Report. According to Fink, the party received around 4,000 new membership applications in the first few days after Barak’s departure, most of them from young people.
By way of comparison, he says that in the previous two years they were virtually unable to get anyone to join, with more young members leaving than new ones coming in. Overall party membership figures dipped from around 90,000 at the last election in February 2009 to just 30,000 in mid-2010. Fink argues that young people now have a unique opportunity to exert real influence in the party, which he hopes will be able to rebrand itself in a way that makes it trendy to join.
Some well-known public figures are also making a pitch for Labor. For example, Erel Margalit, founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners, and Ruth Cheshin, president of the Jerusalem Foundation, have launched a new nationwide membership drive they are calling “Labor Now.”
NEVERTHELESS, NOT TOO MANY months down the road, the end result of the initial split in Labor could well be the demise or at least the marginalization of the party once led by David Ben- Gurion; the party that founded the state and led it for the critical first 29 years of nationhood and nation building.
This throws into sharp relief the question of Barak’s personal motivation. How could a kibbutznik betray the Labor movement, his colleagues and his voters with a move that will probably see his new Atzmaut faction ending up in an electoral pact with Labor’s great historical foe, Likud? Did he do it just for the defense portfolio or is there a bigger picture? When Moshe Dayan left Labor in 1977 to serve as right-wing Menachem Begin’s foreign minister, he knew it was to help lead a peacemaking process with Egypt. Is there some grander scheme afoot this time too? Barak’s critics argue that he was never really a Labor man – never fully committed to peacemaking or to social solidarity. His first act as Labor leader in 1997 was to fire staff who had been with the party for years. Then he changed the party’s name from Labor to One Israel, dissociating it from its working-class roots and its socialist underpinnings. Impressed by Tony Blair’s New Labor in Britain, he claimed to be moving in the same more market- oriented direction. In later years, his huge ostentatious luxury apartment on the 31st floor of the Akirov Towers in Tel Aviv became a symbol of his lack of social solidarity.
Barak was never a flag-waving peacenik either, dismissing those who were as members of the “deep left.” For him, moving closer to the more capitalist and hard-line Likud was probably less wrenching that it might have been for other Laborites.
Party critics accuse him of leaving a trail of destruction – losing the party’s Arab and Russian immigrant votes, failing to stem the erosion of its natural middle-class constituency, refusing to open up the party to searching debate on its future – and then being able to simply walk away without a tinge of remorse.
At the party meeting in Beit Berl, activist Yoram Marciano gave vent to the general frustration with Barak. “Where he walks no grass grows,” he growled.
Barak has also left a trail of broken personal relations, including an unprecedentedly bitter feud between him as defense minister and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Given his past performance and his disdain for most of his colleagues, there is almost universal consensus in Labor that their former leader is quite capable of making what Yacimovich called “a corrupt and opportunistic move designed solely to preserve Barak’s seat in government.”
OTHERS OUTSIDE LABOR INSIST that there is more to it. They argue that Barak would not have made the move unless there was something really big afoot – like peace with the Palestinians or war with Iran. On the face of it, however, it would seem that the peace process with the Palestinians is in trouble. With the reduced 66-member coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas or even the hawks in the Likud could easily veto any peace-making moves they believe go too far. Some think this actually suits both Netanyahu and Barak, since neither man believes a peace deal with the Palestinians that serves the Israeli interest is attainable at present.
But the two leaders put a very different gloss on events. They argue that up till now the Palestinians had been hoping to a get an Israeli government more amenable to their demands and had therefore refrained from engaging in serious peace talks.
“Some people even advised the Palestinians to wait, because the Netanyahu government was about to fall,” a Netanyahu aide tells The Report. Now, he says, the Palestinians will realize that this is the government they have to deal with and that will likely bring them back to the negotiating table.
Moreover, top aides have been dropping broad hints that a new Israeli peace initiative is in the works – and intimating that this is the next stage of a much wider Netanyahu-Barak understanding. The speculation is that if there is a new Israeli peace plan, it will probably be for a long-term interim agreement, in which Israel withdraws to a new temporary border, allowing the establishment of an interim Palestinian state, with thorny issues like Jerusalem, refugees and final borders deferred for later. Adding weight to the theory is the fact that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has actually produced a map for the proposed interim Palestinian state.
As for war with Iran, some pundits argue that Netanyahu is seriously contemplating a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and that he feels he needs Barak at his side to go through with it. According to this line of thinking, with the Labor party threatening to force Barak to leave the government, Netanyahu could have found himself with a different defense minister, less inclined to attack. The front-runner would have been the Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon, a super-hawk on the Palestinian issue, but very cautious on Iran.
Pundits note that other key military figures with reservations about attacking Iran, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Military Intelligence Head Amos Yadlin and Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, have all recently stepped down or are about to retire, and that incoming chief of staff Yoav Galant (whose appointment is now again under scrutiny) is thought to be far more hawkish on Iran than his predecessor.
THE IRANIAN QUESTION, the nuclear drive allied to the rocket threat posed by Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, is also part of the reason for Labor’s electoral predicament. Indeed, to be fair, Labor owes its decline as much to Israel’s tough neighborhood as to Barak’s erratic leadership.
During the past decade, the second Palestinian intifada, the rockets from Gaza that followed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal and the Iranian nuclear threat triggered a significant swing to the right. Labor also faced an accumulation of weighty sociological problems.
According to Nissim Zvili, a former Labor secretary general and an astute observer of local politics, Barak merely accelerated processes of decline that had long been in the works. Labor, says Zvili, was never a true working-class party and had lost the blue-collar vote, mainly to Likud, by the early 1970s.
Worse, over time, as it ceased to be the pragmatic, cutting-edge problem-solving party its predecessor Mapai had always been, it lost much of its natural middle-class constituency – first to Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change, then again to Tommy Lapid’s Shinui and more recently to Kadima.
Labor and the left as a whole were also hurt by the loss of the uniqueness of their peace message, after Kadima and later even Likud adopted the twostate model for peace with the Palestinians.
All this was compounded by weak leadership by Barak and his generation in the post Yitzhak Rabin/Shimon Peres era. “The upshot was that in the last election, 80 percent of former Labor supporters voted for Kadima,” Zvili tells The Report.
In Zvili’s view, though, Labor should not try to fight Kadima for the same political space. On the contrary, he believes that Labor should willingly split into two, with the bulk of the party joining Kadima as part of a single, powerful center-left political bloc, pushing for peace and the rule of law, with close to capitalist socioeconomic policies. He reckons that such a bloc could win at least 40 Knesset seats.
The rest of Labor, the more socially concerned members, should help create a new genuinely working-class/social-democratic party, moderate on peace and emphasizing social solidarity. Led by someone like Yacimovich or former Labor leader Amram Mitzna, Zvili says it could win around ten seats. “The political map should be redrawn in such a way that we have clearer choices,” Zvili says, adding that in the new constellation he proposes, the center-left would have a better chance of regaining power.
Political scientist Orit Galili-Zucker of Bar- Ilan University agrees with much of Zvili’s analysis. An expert on political leadership, Galili-Zucker details some of the key leadership failures that accelerated Labor’s decline in the post Rabin/Peres era. Barak, she says, talked about Tony Blair’s “Third Way,” but besides changing the party’s name did nothing to implement it. “He doesn’t have patience for long-term processes,” Galili-Zucker, who worked with Barak as a political consultant, tells The Report. “And because of his disdain for other people’s intelligence, he thought making a cosmetic change would be enough.”
Mitzna, who ran as leader in the 2003 election at the height of the second intifada, was a peace warrior, “out of tune with the times”; Peretz, who followed in 2006, made “the cardinal mistake of taking the defense portfolio after a campaign in which he promised to focus on socioeconomic change”; and then Barak, second time round in 2009, had nothing to offer except himself as “Mr. Security.”
In weighing Labor’s future, Galili-Zucker says it could be affected by further splits in the political system. Likud hawks could defect to the radical right; right-wingers in Kadima could join the Likud and left-wingers could hive off to a new left-wing group around Labor; conversely, some Labor people might join Kadima, while others form a new party of the left. “I think all this is to the good. Barak has opened a valve that could air the whole political system,” she says.
The consequences could be far-reaching – especially if the left is able to work together and unify disparate groups like Labor, Meretz, the National Left, the Greens and others into a single, new left-wing party. “There is definitely room for something like that. Historically, the left has never been able to rise above petty personal rivalries, but theoretically, it’s certainly possible. After all the moving around, we could even wind up with something like a twoparty model, with the left as a potential gamebreaking force,” she avers.
THIS IS PRECISELYWHAT MERETZ leader Haim Oron has been working towards for the past several months. Oron, who is resigning from the Knesset to devote more time to this Herculean task, argues that after Barak’s defection from Labor, building a new left-wing force has become both more urgent and more feasible. “In the next elections there should be one list to the left of Kadima with clear positions on the peace process, on defense of the democratic domain and with a social democratic approach to the economy. There is a large constituency waiting for something like this to emerge and I hope we will be able to meet the need,” he tells The Report.
Oron does not expect this to happen overnight. A joint ideological and organizational platform takes time to mature, he says, but he is convinced that ultimately the differences among the various groups can be bridged. First, he says, they need to build the common framework, and only then to choose a leader. “It’s not going to be a political framework that one person establishes. It will be a coalescence of groups, streams and personalities in Israeli society, and in the end someone will head it. But in that order, not the other way round. Putting forward a No. 1, who will simply call on everyone else to follow, is not a realistic option,” he warns.
In the meantime, Meretz and Labor’s eight remaining Knesset members have begun informal cooperation in the Knesset with a joint motion of no-confidence already in the pipeline. Eitan Cabel, the new Labor Knesset faction chief, says that although Barak has set the party free to rebuild, there is still a long way to go before Labor’s “very deep problems” are solved. “Any attempt to try and dress ourselves up as a governing alternative would be a huge mistake. We need to think in terms of a party that could still disappear from the political map,” he tells The Report.
In Cabel’s view, Labor needs to start everything afresh, redefining itself ideologically and building new institutions more in tune with the needs of the 21st century. “We have come through one of the biggest earthquakes ever to hit the party. We can’t use the existing tools and institutions to rebuild. Everything needs to be dissolved. Everything needs to be rebuilt from scratch. And, most importantly, we need to draft a new constitution,” he insists.
The first order of business will be to appoint a temporary party leader. Cabel says it should be someone of public standing, but not one of the eight. “The last thing we need to do now is to get into a fight over who the temporary chairman will be,” he cautions.
According to Cabel, the new chairman will focus on the administrative side of the rebuilding and the eight Knesset members on the substance. Ultimately, like Zvili, he believes the party should split. “Some of its members should go over to Kadima, and the others, using Labor as a platform or starting completely from scratch, should build that unified bloc left of Kadima,” he says.
Much will depend on the extent to which the eight are able to cooperate. Other key factors will be the numbers returning to Labor and who eventually becomes the new party leader. What is already clear is that Israel’s political map is changing, perhaps dramatically.
Only when the political tremor Barak precipitated plays itself out will it be clear what kind of Labor its reenergized activists have been able to build and where its place on the new political map will be.