Editorial: Labor Pains

At the very time of an unusual number of coincidental major changes even for the volatile Middle East, Israel’s landscape has also experienced a major earthquake with this week’s surprise announcement by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that he has split from the Labor Party he has headed to form a new political faction called Independence, or Atzmaut.

Barak’s announcement coincided with the dramatic citizens revolt which toppled Tunisia’s longtime dictator from power; the apparent voter approval by Southern Sudan to secede from Northern Sudan to form an independent state; religious attacks on Christians by Muslims in Egypt, Iraq and Iran; the collapse of Lebanon’s fragile coalition resulting from Hezbollah’s defection from its ranks and reports that a computer “worm,” possibly initiated by Israeli intelligence, had dealt a major setback to Iran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Against this backdrop and despite the usual internecine bickering, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party, seemed relatively stable until Barak’s announcement.

Barak was joined by four other key Labor Party members of the Knesset, Matan Vilnai, Shalom Simhon, Orit Noked and Einat Wilf, who had held major posts in the present government. Formation of the new faction won approval from the House Knesset Committee on Monday, which means that at least for now Netanyahu’s government will survive with its present allies of the Yisrael Beitenu, some religious factions and the new Independence/Atzmaut group.

At a news conference following the announcement, Barak said that the new faction would be “centralist, Zionist and democratic.” He also vowed it would “do what’s best and what’s right for Israel.” Barak noted that previous Israeli prime ministers had defected at times from the Labor Party, among them David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon. Israel’s political parties have split and re-grouped numerous times since the creation of the Jewish State. The original Labor Party was made up of the more leftist/Marxist-oriented Mapai and the more centrist and pragmatic Mapam. The present-day Meretz Party has a similar orientation to the old Mapai faction, and Barak and his fellow defectors had complained that the Labor Party had become too similar in ideology to that of Meretz.

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At this writing, it appears that the more leftist members of the Labor Party will not remain in the coalition with Netanyahu, including Barak’s former longtime ally, Benyamin Ben-Eliezer. The “Wild Card” in the short term will be the response of the Kadima Party, headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Tzipi Livni. Kadima was the centrist party formed by Ariel Sharon in order to give him more flexibility in the peace process with the Palestinians.

When Ehud Barak was the Labor Party Prime Minister of Israel, he devoted every minute of his term to seeking peace agreements with the Palestinians (and also Syria). Barak came close to an agreement with the Palestinians with the help of then-President Bill Clinton at the Camp David talks in July 2000, which Clinton correctly blames then P.A. President Yasser Arafat for scuttling.

Barak’s track record, which combines being Israel’s most decorated member of the Israel Defense Forces and one of the most determined prime ministers to seek peace, provides solid credentials to bring to Israel’s coalition at this time.

At a time when the tectonic plates in the Middle East and North Africa are shifting rapidly, the need for a “steady at the helm” Israeli government is even more urgent than usual. If wiser heads prevail, and Barak, Netanyahu and any other potential partners who could work together to achieve peace with stability, Israel’s new reality could be very positive. New challenges indeed present new opportunities and at this point we are cautiously optimistic.