LIVE BLOG: Labor Party Splits

I’ll be live-blogging the dramatic split of the Labor party on +972 Magazine today. Key updates so far: Barak leaves party and remains defence minister, forming a separate faction together with 4 mid-level Labor MKs * New faction to be known as Atzmaut, or Independence * Move reportedly orchestrated with Netanyahu * Social Affairs Minister Herzog, Minority Affairs Braverman resign * Labor in the process of leaving coalition. What follows below is my initial analysis; click here to see the news as they come in.

Early this morning, Ehud Barak took a daring leap into oblivion by resigning as chairman of the Labor party and taking 4 MKs to start a new parliamentary faction.  It is widely speculated the Labor ministers  left out of the ploy will either resign ot be dismissed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Hereditary peer Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog and Minority Affairs Minister Avishai Braverman already resigned), and their portfolios will be handed out to Barak’s acolytes.The new faction, which is aimed solely at remaining dependant on Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s good graces for portfolios, will be called Ha-Atzmaut – Independence.

Barak has been facing growing discontent within the party ranks from day one, but this was exacerbated over the past year, when it became clear the party had zero leverage in the government and that the “peace process”, for which is ostensibly joined the coalition, was a corpse. The very decision to join was hotly contested from the start, with vociferous backbenchers forming rebel groups within the parliamentary faction. Although for most of the two years the rebels were as impotent as they were loud, their mere presence signalled to young rank and file that there was an alternative to the Barak leadership, and there were persistent rumors in the past weeks the rebels were about to regroup and try a coup.

Barak’s move this morning was a clever, if desperate, check-mate to those who wanted to oust him from party leadership. He seized the initiative and grabbed the active role in the story, simultaneously cutting off the incumbent ministers of the Labor party, powerful allies who could turn rivals as the wind changed.Instead, he chose to make a new faction with a group of four middle to junior level politicos: His loyal deputy Matan Vilnai (who recently told reporters he got confused and voted in favour of investigating leftist NGOs “by mistake), MK Einat Wilf (who supports elementary schools privatisation), MK Orit Noked (who?), and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simchon. SImchon has bid this year to lead the Jewish National Foundation, but the conflict of interest between his role as Agriculture Minister and chairmanship of the largest land-owning organisation in the country was deemed to have too much conflict of interest even for such high-level politics.

The trouble with that very smart move is that Barak is one of the most widely despised figures in Israeli politics. He is seen as corrupt, megalomaniac, irresponsible and devoid of principle; the Right sees the  unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon he engineered in 1999 as a political and military disaster, which  to the equally disastrous unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the Second Lebanon War;  the Left sees him as a huge disappointment, with a great share of responsibility for the collapse of the peace talks and the start of the Second Intifada in 2000; conservatives see him as spineless, liberals see him as a bully; for once, all of the above appear to be correct.

In their press conference the splitter faction announced that life in the Labor party have become “unbearable” of late, that there was no discipline, and that it’s been drifting leftwards to post-Zionism and post-Modernity (sic). MK Wilf bemoaned that some of her Labor party colleagues wanted to take the party “left of Kadima”, while she wanted to “retain the Ben Gurion and Mapai legacy.” The already ridiculous tussle for the mythological Israel centre reached an apogee: Kadima split from Likud in 2005 to bid for the centre, which it estimated to be two degrees leftwards; now Labor is splitting to bid to the right of Kadima.

Ynet had the early dibs on reporting that the move was orchestrated together with Netanyahu, and indeed we saw the split being confirmed by the House Committee thanks to the support of the right-wing members. The scenario for the next 24 hours appears to be laid out: All the ministers not on board Barak’s escape raft will either resign or get fired, and Netanyahu will replace them with Barak’s motley crew. Labor will then leave the coalition, which can afford to lose 10 MKs, especially as those 10 are expected to spend the rest of current parliamentary session  in a bitter feud amongst themselves for policy and leadership. Indeed, the issue of party discipline was a momentous one in the split in the first place, and it’s unlikely the Labor leftovers will be able to impose it any time soon.

In the short term, it seems everybody wins – Netanyahu retains coalition and gets rid of the loose canons in the Labor party; Barak retains the only thing he cares about – power; and the remainder of the Labor party get to play opposition. But in the long term, neither part of the split Labor is likely to fare well in the next elections. I don’t think Barak will even run on his own – he knows he’s unelectable; he might instead start a new party with all or some of the Likud or Kadima. The Labor leftovers chances don’t seem much better. For those who has some illusions about Labor’s potential, today might seem reinvigorating. But unless a major and cataclysmic young guard revolt takes place and drags it to 5-10 seats in the next parilament, Labor seems poised to vanish from Israeli politics.

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