I recommend this penetrating analysis of the death throws of Israel’s Labor party by Daniel Levy, a co-founder of J Street who is currently a leading Washington think-tanker on Israel-Palestine issues. When he lived in Israel, Levy briefly worked for Barak’s government and then played an important role in writing the unofficial peace treaty known as the Geneva Accord. It begins as follows:
The parliamentary faction representing the party that founded and built the state of Israel and that dominated its governments for decades was today reduced to mere single digits — Israel’s Labor Party now has eight members in the Knesset. This latest dilution resulted from a move that took everyone by surprise, enacted by its now-erstwhile leader, still the country’s defense minister, Ehud Barak.
To make any sense of the shock that has just convulsed Israeli politics, a very brief primer is in order. Israel is a parliamentary democracy in which the country is a single electoral district and members of the parliament, the Knesset, are elected on party lists according to a pure system of proportional representation (with a threshold of two percent for entering parliament). The system has always made for a proliferation of parties being represented in the Knesset, for government by coalition, with various rules being introduced over the years to prevent too much horse-trading, including one stipulating that for a new faction to split away from an existing party and be recognized with full rights in parliament, the breakaway faction must constitute at least one-third of the members of the mother party.
Ehud Barak took four fellow members of Labor’s Knesset grouping with him to form the Atzmaut or Independence faction, thereby meeting that one-third bar (Labor had a total of 13 seats, the Knesset is a 120 seat parliament). The relevant Knesset committee has already approved the split and recognized Barak’s new faction. The five-member Atzmaut will continue to serve in Netanyahu’s coalition government and Barak will remain minister of defense. The rump Labor faction, with eight MKs, has announced its intention to quit the coalition, and the three ministers belonging to this faction all tended their resignations in the course of today (Benjamin ‘Fuad’ Ben-Eliezer, Trade and Industry; Yizhak ‘Buji’ Herzog, Welfare; and Avishai Braverman, minister for Minorities). …
Since formally returning to politics in 2007 after a six-year hiatus in the private sector, Ehud Barak’s hold on the Labor Party has always been somewhat tenuous. In the last general election in 2009 Barak led Labor into its worst-ever result, with the party slipping not only to 13 seats but also now becoming only the fourth largest in the Knesset, having never before in history been out of the top two. During nearly two years serving in a hard-rightist coalition not only with Likud but also with Avigdor Lieberman and the religious-orthodox right, Labor’s popularity slipped even further, and talk of quitting the coalition became a constant background hum.
In recent months, as a slew of anti-democratic and racist legislative initiatives were advanced by Labor’s government allies and as even the façade of a functioning peace process was removed (and Labor’s justification for being in the coalition was to ‘save the peace process’), many Labor ministers felt uncomfortable in the government and attacked its policies. The end was near. Several MKs were pushing to bring forward party leadership elections to unseat Barak and to pull Labor out of the government. Convening the party’s institutions to vote on these initiatives seemed imminent.
In other words, the Barak-led split was a preemptive move. …
The name of the new faction, “Independence,” is being treated with deep irony, it is anything but that. It is as much a creation of Netanyahu’s as it is Barak’s, and is dependent on the former’s good will. The only part of today’s drama that surprised no one was that Ehud Barak himself would betray the Labor Party in order to save his own political skin.
Bizarrely for someone who has twice served as leader, Barak has never struck deep roots in the party. Barak joined Labor when Yizhak Rabin made him a minister in 1995, only six months after ending his 35-year military career. Within two years he was party leader, and two years after that, prime minister. His political career has been punctuated by the occasional police investigation and allegation of corruption, but even more consistently by a prevailing sense that he was a Trojan horse inside both the Labor Party and the Israeli peace camp.
Barak had already tried to morph the Labor Party into something else when he subsumed Labor under the “One Israel” banner in the 1999 election. Many consider Barak to have single-handedly snuffed out the remains of Israel’s peace camp when Barak himself declared there was no Palestinian partner after the failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000. The “No Partner” meme has become a defining motif of the Israeli discourse ever since. Barak presided over the total loss of support for Labor amongst the Palestinian Arab population in Israel, and once Kadima was formed, mostly as a Likud breakaway, and later when serving in the Kadima-led Olmert government, Barak chose to relocate Labor from its natural place – to the left of Kadima – to a more hawkish centrist position to Kadima’s right.
Ehud Barak was PM when the second Intifada started and initiated the assassinations policy against mid-level political in addition to resistance leaders on the Palestinian side; he oversaw a massive upturn in settlement growth and was defense minister during Operation Cast Lead. Alongside all of that, Barak pulled Israel out of southern Lebanon in May 2000, ending an 18-year occupation. But he did so unilaterally – having recanted on a prospective peace deal with Syria at the last moment – and in doing so he greatly embellished the popularity and reputation of Hezbollah. …