JERUSALEM, Israel — When Ehud Barak announced his plan Monday to split from Israel’s Labor Party and form a new parliamentary faction built entirely around himself, the defense minister displayed his usual combination of keen strategic thinking and craven self-interest.
Barak’s stated logic is this: He wants to stay in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist coalition because he believes a stable coalition forces the Palestinians to consider its peace offer. With several Labor Party ministers constantly complaining about leaving the government, Barak believes the Palestinians were waiting around until the coalition fell apart. So by jettisoning the reluctant Laborites, he makes the coalition secure and forces the Palestinians to take steps toward peace.
It’s hard to argue with his perspective — so long as you have no idea who Ehud Barak is.
If you’ve followed the former commando and chief of Israel’s military during his political career, however, you’ll recognize that he sacrificed both party and principle to strike a deal with a government which — nominally, at least — represents everything he was elected to oppose.
Some in the Labor Party think Barak betrayed the party's traditional pro-peace stance by remaining in a government replete with right-wing nationalists. Barak maintained he was able to exert a moderating influence on Netanyahu, though recent reports in Israeli newspapers suggested U.S. diplomats have lost faith in his power in the cabinet.
Barak and Netanyahu “would do anything to survive,” said Nitzan Horowitz, a legislator from the leftist Meretz Party.
The 68-year-old Barak announced his new faction, Independence, at a press conference Monday. He was backed by four legislators who split from Labor. Each was rewarded Tuesday with a new ministerial or legislative position in the government, nabbing promotions to agriculture minister, industry minister and parliamentary committee head, among other goodies.
Barak said his faction would be “centrist, Zionist.” His alternative, it had become clear, was to be kicked out of the Labor leadership at the party convention in March by a membership increasingly embarrassed to be part of a government whoe right-wing elements, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, are treated with polite disdain at best by most Western diplomats. That would have meant no more defense ministry for him, and power is what motivates this former prime minister above all else.
That might seem unsurprising. What politician isn’t obsessed with power? Nonetheless, most are expected to have a tenuous hold on principle. Barak compared himself to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and to two previous prime ministers, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, each of whom split their party to create new factions. The difference is that these forebears aimed at new directions for Israeli politics. Barak just wants to keep his job a little longer.
Israeli leftists and many centrists spoke of disgust that Barak’s maneuver — the leading newspaper Ha’aretz called it “filthy” — would bolster Netanyahu’s right-wing government. Here’s the math: The coalition used to have 74 of the 120 Knesset, or parliament, seats, but the possibility that the 13 Labor legislators might leave gave the impression of fragility; now with 66 solid coalition seats, Netanyahu is more secure.
That’s why the prime minister was so smug after Barak’s announcement. He had feared that Labor would quit the government in March, after forcing Barak out of the leadership. That would’ve made his coalition untenable — with a majority of only one — and would’ve robbed him of a defense minister whose leadership of a supposedly leftist party was a valuable international fig leaf for his diplomatic stonewalling.
The deal to form Independence was made at Netanyahu’s villa in Caesarea, a Mediterranean beachfront town, over the last week. Other Labor leaders, however, were in the dark until Barak called them just before his press conference.
“This government will be here for the coming years, and it is with this government that [the Palestinians] will have to conduct the peace process,” Netanyahu said.
The Labor Party, which was descended from the founding movement of Zionism, appeared to be on its last legs, after a couple of decades of steep decline. It paid the price for the failure of its Oslo Peace Accords, which were destroyed by the Palestinian intifada early in the last decade, and for a perceived arrogance and obsession with government jobs, of which Barak was a prime example.
On Tuesday, four of the remaining eight Labor legislators in the Knesset mulled whether to split to form their own faction. Those trying to hold the party together argue that it can rebuild in opposition and reluctantly these four said they agreed. But it’s just as likely that Barak’s “centrist, Zionist” faction has put the final nail in the coffin of the movement that first propounded Zionism as a political cause.
Says Yohanan Plessner, a member of the opposition Kadima Party, “The political culture in Israel [has] reached a new low of filth and loathing.”