January 20, 2011

Israel's Labor Party finds its principles a bit too late

Labor Party Members of Israel's Knesset (MKs) and their supporters are outraged that Party Leader and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak has split off to form his own party, Atzmaut (Independence). His deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu includes an additional ministerial portfolio, which is impressive for a new party with only five MKs.

Here's the real question, which to their credit a number of Labor Party members have asked in the months since Barak brought Labor into a coalition government with the Likud and other right-wing parties: What was Labor doing in this government in the first place?

The center-right Kadima Party, which had originally split from Likud over the issue of withdrawal from Gaza, maneuvered itself out of a share in the current government. This left the door open for Labor, but Labor and Likud approaches to peacemaking with the Palestinians are mutually exclusive. Ideologically, the resulting Netanyahu government resembles a doughnut with no filling in the center.

If Labor activists were so exercised by Barak's joining the government, they could have formed their own splinter party way back then. But power corrupts broadly, and there may have been some who naively believed they could influence government decisions on core issues of peace and security. They did betray those who believe the Palestinian Authority is a reliable partner for peace and that the establishment of a viable Palestinian state is an urgent priority for Israel's security and soul, and they have served as window dressing for a government that otherwise would be right/far right.

Barak traded in his principles long before this week's announcement, but at least he'd delivered something and benefited in return. The rest of the Labor Party just went along, possibly because they had nowhere else to go. If elections were held today, Labor without Barak would be lucky to get five or six seats, and Barak's nascent Atzmaut Party would get even less. But he is useful to Netanyahu going forward, both internationally and as a speed bump to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his more right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party.

When Ariel Sharon founded Kadima five years ago, the Likud he left behind was given up for dead. But Sharon was a strong and popular prime minister, and he pulled in Shimon Peres and other Labor stars to form a new midpoint on Israel's political spectrum. Barak brings along a few loyalists from the Labor side, with no prospect of wielding power from a popular base anytime soon.

It is far too late for the Labor Party to stand on principle. The real opportunity to make at least a symbolic stand expired months ago. Today, no one notices anything about Labor. Even if it reorganizes itself with parties further to its left, Israeli voters have migrated to the political space between Kadima's right and Yisrael Beiteinu's left, so that leaves little in the way of short-term prospects on Kadima's left -- even for an ambitious politician like Barak.

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