Labor pains are Bibi’s bonus
By Amotz Asa-El
With his 15-year-old political stocks in the doldrums and his stint as prime minister from 1999 to early 2001 a distant memory, Defence Minister Ehud Barak was already being politically eulogised. However, the retired general showed that even at 69 he could still manage the sort of state-of-the-art ambush for which he earned fame as a soldier.
In a sudden press conference on Jan. 17 – of which there was no hint even in that morning’s newspapers – the chairman of Israel’s Labor Party announced he was quitting his own party and forming a new one, to be called Atzma’ut, or “Independence”. Barak said he was being joined by five of his original faction’s 13 lawmakers. The rest, all of whom had no idea about the move, were left out not because Barak didn’t want them on board, but because he knew he had long lost their loyalty. Some had ideological differences with him, others had political misgivings, and all had personal issues with the man who has earned a reputation over the years for serially losing allies, aides, and friends.
Barak tried to portray his move as motivated by ideology, claiming his former colleagues wanted to steer Labor to the left of Kadima, the main opposition party, while he wanted to follow in its famously centrist founder David Ben-Gurion’s footsteps. Polls, however, indicated that Barak’s presentation convinced very few Israelis, who mostly thought his manoeuvre was but a tactical ploy aimed at pre-empting his colleagues’ plans to unseat him.
In this respect, the move worked. Barak’s position as defence minister is paradoxically more secure now than it was on the eve of his move, when he nominally led more than twice as many lawmakers as he currently does. Still the master tactician he was during his long years as a military leader, Barak outmanoeuvred his rivals, who lost the leverage they would have enjoyed had they first unseated Barak as party leader and then quit en masse from PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s government.
In the longer term, however, Barak’s move in all likelihood signals the beginning of the end of his political career. It was one thing for Barak to work unilaterally vis-à-vis Labor. Rivalries, splits, and also bitter enmities have been endemic within the party since its establishment after World War I. But party veterans say they cannot forgive Barak’s defection, as they see it, to Netanyahu’s bosom. As it turned out, while Barak kept Labor in the dark about his plans, the Prime Minister was fully apprised of the move. His cooperation had to be secured in advance, as Barak needed assurances he would emerge from the manoeuvre with a promise to remain defence minister.
Netanyahu, for his part, not only agreed – he did so happily. From his viewpoint, he won three times: first, he split Labor; secondly, he repelled what until recently seemed like an imminent collapse of his government; and lastly, he sent into opposition a new faction, one that is likely to steal some valuable limelight from Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni and her Kadima Party.
Labor itself, meanwhile, emerges from the ordeal traumatised.
Barak cited David Ben-Gurion’s secession from Labor in 1965 to form his own Rafi party, which made party veterans smile wryly. Ben-Gurion, they said, made his move after building the entire Jewish state, and at the time of seceding, he lived in a shack in a kibbutz in the middle of the desert. Barak, by contrast, is leading a very bourgeois life in one of Tel Aviv’s most glitzy skyscrapers. Now, say Labor veterans, the party can be what it is really meant to be – a champion of the working class.
However, to rebuild its electoral fortunes, the shrunken Labor Party will have to elect a leader who will wield at least some of the vision, resolve, charisma, and pragmatism with which Ben-Gurion was so famously endowed. For now that leader has yet to emerge. The two names currently being touted, Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz, each previously led Labor briefly over the last decade without much success – and the socialism that many of the party faithful now crave is largely out of fashion in 21st century Israel.
How far to the left Labor ends up moving in its post-Barak era remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the Labor split leaves Likud and Kadima alone as the main competitors for Israel’s leadership. Labor’s main competition will be with the centre-left Kadima, and not with the centre-right Likud. Likud’s main competitor, after Kadima, is the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu Party, and its outspoken leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Barak’s new “Independence” faction is not expected to emerge from the next election as a major player, if it survives that contest at all.
There is, however, one factor that might yet reshuffle the entire deck of cards yet again, and it is the Middle East.
Though there is no hard evidence to this effect, speculation abounded following the Labor split that Barak and Netanyahu know something the rest of the political system does not know, something about issues of war and peace.
For every politician and pundit in Israel, Barak’s move recalled Moshe Dayan’s defection in 1977 from Labor’s ranks to Menachem Begin’s first government, which he joined as foreign minister (also by founding an independent faction). Initially, Dayan’s former party colleagues dubbed him “a political prostitute” but ultimately, when his move produced the peace deal with Egypt, they had to admit he knew what he was doing, and that it was, from their viewpoint, worth the price. According to this analogy, Barak’s move might be part of a plan to strike a peace deal, either with the Palestinian Authority or with Syria. Though chances of this happening right now seem small at best, if it nevertheless happens many of Barak’s detractors will overnight take back their criticism and instead carry him on their shoulders.
Alternatively, Barak and Netanyahu may have in mind an attack on Iran. If this is the case, they may also be deriving inspiration from Israeli history, namely the Six Day War in 1967, which Israel also fought while led by a right-left government. Netanyahu and Barak are both believed to be hawkish on Iran, an attitude that has reportedly been tempered by outgoing Mossad intelligence agency head Meir Dagan and Army Chief-of-General-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, who both reportedly think Israel should fire only once attacked. The views of new Mossad head Tamir Pardo are not known but incoming Chief-of-Staff-designate Maj.-Gen. Yoav Galant is believed to be more hawkish than his predecessor. In any event, should a clash with Iran ensue, Barak’s latest political manoeuvre will be forgotten, as he and Netanyahu will be judged, for better or worse, by that confrontation’s outcome.
In any event, Barak and Netanyahu might be forgetting that, with all due respect to their close and long-standing friendship going back to their joint military service as commandos, Barak can no longer be assumed to represent much of the Israeli street. A five-member parliamentary faction that wasn’t even elected as such is in no position to seriously impact government policy even on minor issues, let alone on a war of choice, in a distant land, against a powerful enemy fuelled by religious zeal, with potentially massive consequences.
At the moment, just as in the peace-agreement scenario, there is not one shred of evidence that Barak’s move to split Labor has anything to do with any action against Iran. But then again, until the morning of the announcement, there was no evidence that Barak might secede from Labor either.