Dienstag, 1. Februar 2011

Barak’s Party Exit –Final Nail in the Coffin for Labor or Last Chance for a New Political Future?

Liebe Leserinnen und Leser,

auf Bitten einiger Alsharq-Freunde, die nicht deutsch sprechen, veröffentlichen wir die folgende Analyse zu Ehud Baraks Partei-Austritt auf Englisch. Verfasser ist Ralf Hexel, Leiter der Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung in Israel. Eine deutsche Version der Analyse findet sich auf der Homepage der FES.

Von Ralf Hexel

On January 17, Ehud Barak, chairman of the Labor Party (Avoda) and four other members of Avoda’s Knesset faction of 13 walked out on the party and created a faction called “Atzmaut” (Independence). The next objective is to establish a party by the same name. The four members of Knesset (MKs) who left the Avoda faction together with Barak are Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai, Deputy Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Orit Noked and Einat Wilf.

Commenting his decision Barak said: “Sharon made a similar move and so did Ben Gurion and Peres. We are creating a new faction, a new movement and then a new party. This party will be Zionist, democratic and centralist, and be true to the legacy of David Ben Gurion.” He declared the main motive behind his departure was the party’s ever stronger “shift towards the Left”. Barak’s abrupt exit stunned both the general public and the Avoda-leadership. The remaining Avoda Ministers – Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, Minister for Minority Affairs Avishai Braverman and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer – announced their and the party’s withdrawal from the Netanyahu government the same day. Isaac Herzog commented Barak’s departure from Avoda with the following words: “Today is a day of positive change for the Labor Party. Barak’s move will enable us to stabilize the Labor Party. It is time to stop lying to ourselves and quit this government which has brought about a deadlock. This government has imposed on us Avigdor Lieberman and his party with its unacceptable racist discourse, which threatens to undermine our democracy.” Knesset Member Shelly Yachimovich commented Barak’s move to ditch Labor as “a corrupt and opportunistic move” adding that his only intention was to retain his ministerial post in the government.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who was apparently closely involved in Barak’s decision said: “The government has grown much stronger today, in its stability and governance.” While Netanyahu’s parliamentary majority has shrunk from 74 to 66 Members of Knesset, it is nonetheless, from his viewpoint, undeniably correct to interpret the change as a strengthening of the government. As of now, Netanyahu can be sure of a stable while unequivocally right-wing and nationalist coalition. Within his governing coalition he will hardly have to expect any criticism against his policy towards the Middle East peace process.

Netanyahu rewarded Barak and his followers with the following ministerial posts: Shalom Simhon became Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, Matan Vilnai was promoted from Deputy Defence Minister to minister in the Defence Ministry, Orit Noked got the Ministry of Agriculture and Einat Wilf was promised the chairmanship of the Knesset Education Committee. That makes four of the five “Atzmaut” members faction ministers.

Barak’s disastrous political performance

With the political manoeuvre that caught the party by surprise - the military would call it a “liberation strike”- Barak pre-empted the inevitable outcome of a development within the Labor Party that was putting increased pressure on him. In 2009, he had steered the party into Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government with the promise to be “no fig leaf but a genuine counterweight to the right-wing parties”. He was going to nudge Netanyahu toward an agreement with the Palestinians that would serve to guarantee lasting peace in the region. The opposite turned out to be the case: peace negotiations are completely deadlocked, settlement activity continues in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel’s international reputation has been dealt a severe blow and Barak’s political opponent in the government, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman succeeded in amplifying his political weight. Not Barak but Lieberman is the powerful man in the government. And so became reality what Ehud Barak had wanted to avoid at all cost but what his critics had prophesised upon his joining the coalition: to be the “left fig leaf” for a right-wing government.

Apparently, leading representatives of the US administration have come to the same conclusion. In the first week of January this year, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that when it was clear that the direct talks between Netanyahu and Abbas had failed, high-ranking US-representatives had voiced their anger at Barak who had led them to believe he would be able to convince Netanyahu to conclude a peace agreement with the Palestinians, but had obviously deceived them. One would continue to collaborate with Barak but refrain from granting him preferential access to President Obama. Confidence in Barak had obviously been a key element in the US Middle East strategy.

Apart from his failure to help advance the peace process, Barak’s performance as party chairman has been disastrous. His first term in office ended 2001 with the electoral defeat against Ariel Sharon. His tenure as Prime Minister ended when he failed to deliver a peace deal with Yassir Arafat in Camp David in the summer of 2000. In subsequent years, he was very successful as a businessman before returning to politics in 2007, when he was elected chairman of the Labor Party for the second time. At the Knesset elections in 2009, Avoda suffered a crushing defeat under his leadership. The number of seats dropped from 19 to just 13, but Barak’s concern was neither the electoral disaster nor his party’s deteriorating situation. He could have stopped to consider the causes and seek to tackle the party’s renewal but instead decided against going into opposition and joined the Netanyahu government amid vigorous opposition in the party’s own ranks. This led to an internal split and accelerated the party’s waning political relevance. Avoda’s approval ratings in polls continued their downward slide to an estimated six to maximum eight out of a total of 120 Knesset seats. The number of party members – there are no reliable numbers – has reportedly dropped from about 60,000 to perhaps 20,000. Furthermore, the party grew increasingly indebted and Barak neglected the party’s organizational structure and institutions.

Given this dismal performance, Barak was fiercely criticised within the party. Those who were at odds with him demanded the party’s withdrawal from the government and the election of a new party chairman. Barak pre-empted this development by quitting the party and forming his own. With this tactical move he has secured his position as Defence Minister as well as his power-political relevance for Netanyahu. Whether the new party is there to stay is doubtful. Public response shows that Barak is perceived as a politician whose political actions are motivated by what is best for himself, and as a man who lacks values and political morality. According to a recent poll, Barak’s new party would win no more than two Knesset seats. It is likely that Barak will enter a coalition with Netanyahu at the next elections. In this way, he would retain his post as Defence Minister and help Netanyahu solidify his position against Avigdor Lieberman who is increasingly presenting himself as the new leader of the Israeli Right.

Will the opportunity for political renewal be taken?

Since the 2009 elections at the latest, Avoda’s exhausting struggle for survival has become all too apparent. It saw its support erode to a mere 13 Knesset seats compared to 44 under Rabin in 1995. Barak succeeded in keeping himself in the Defence Ministry, but attempted little or nothing to help his party rise from political near-ruin. No surprise then that he is to many the man who dealt a final blow to the Israeli Left.

It is of course all too easy to scapegoat a single person for such a severe crisis, considering that an Avoda majority supported the course Barak pursued. However, Barak’s split from the party does create an opportunity for Avoda to rise from the ruins and rebuild itself. Whether a process of renewal will succeed remains to be seen. The euphoric discourse of many party supporters is out of place. Success will largely depend on whether or not the Avoda leadership can put an end to the existing rivalries, a situation Barak was good at taking advantage of – in line with the principle of “divide et impera”. The Avoda leadership must be realistic in analysing the situation and from there agree on a common political agenda. Only recently everything pointed to it that the party would continue to crumble down. Daniel Ben-Simon announced his plan to leave the Knesset faction and continue as an independent Knesset member. At the same time, it was announced that former party Chairman, Amir Peretz, and former Secretary General, Eitan Cabel, had struck an understanding to join Tzipi Livni’s Kadima at the next elections.

And then, the day after Barak’s departure from Avoda, the Peretz, Cabel Ben-Simon and Raleb Majadele quartet announced they would not leave the party but instead be prepared to help shape its renewal. In this respect, Amir Peretz said: “We are the new Labor, and we hope the existing Labor will accept the rules of the new Labor. The State of Israel needs a reliable social-democratic party, and I hope we’ll be able to do it together.” The four also demanded the abrogation of the modified party constitution of 2010 which had been initiated by Barak with a view to increase the power of the party chairman and constrain democratic decision making mechanisms (referred to by its critics as the Lieberman-constitution).

The “new Labor” representatives are those who opposed Barak’s course ever since Labor joined the Netanyahu government. Then called the “Rebels”, Amir Peretz, Eitan Cabel, Ophir Pines-Paz and Yuli Tamir had objected to Barak’s line of action and for months promoted a different one. They had created a platform of their own within the party but failed to agree on a common political path to go against Barak’s with determined resistance. Yuli Tamir and Ophir Pines resigned their Knesset seats, the latter even left the party, whereas Cabel and Peretz abandoned their opposition. Therefore the “existing” or “old Labor” is made up of those who followed Barak’s path and assumed ministerial posts. They include former Minister Benjamin Ben-Elizier, Isaac Herzog and Avishai Braverman as well as the influential Histadrut-chairman Ofer Eini. When at the party convention the option to enter the Netanyahu government was discussed, it was Eini who had called for unequivocal support to Barak’s line of action and it was his merit that Barak was backed by a majority. With regard to the election of the new party chairman, Eitan Cabel, meanwhile elected new faction chairman of the eight-strong Avoda Knesset faction, said: “I prefer that the chair not be one of us eight because among us, there is too much bad blood. It’s better to have someone untainted.”

On January 23, the Avoda leadership agreed to appoint 74 year old Micha Harish as acting party chairman. Harish, who is appreciated for his integrity, was Secretary General of the party in the early 90s and Minister of Industry under Yitzhak Rabin. It is his responsibility now to serve as chairman pending new elections for the party leadership, the date for which is currently subject of intense discussion. In all likelihood, the new party chairman will also be Labor’s candidate for the next Knesset elections which are expected to be held in 2013.

So far, Isaac Herzog and Avishai Braverman have indicated their readiness to run for the office of party chairman. Shelly Yachimovich, who is not a member of any existing wing, Amir Peretz and Amram Mitzna, who held the position from 2002 to 2003, are supposedly considering to run for office, but there has as yet been no announcement to confirm this. In an opinion poll conducted on January 18, 500 people were asked who they thought most fit to lead Labor. In the results Herzog took the lead with 20%, followed by Mitzna: 18% and Yachimovich: 18%, Peretz: 5%, Braverman: 5% and Eini: 5%.

A new Avoda-Chairman who wants to tackle renewal can be certain to find many willing to cooperate among the party’s members and supporters. The day Barak exited the party, hundreds of new members registered with the Labor Party. Former Avoda activists too, who, frustrated with Barak’s course, had withdrawn from the party, announced they were ready to actively commit themselves to a party renewal. It is now up to the Labor Party and its leadership to turn the “Barak effect” into a one-time opportunity for a new beginning. Should this not succeed and the internal wrangling for posts and power continues, Barak’s departure could indeed be the last nail in the coffin for Avoda.

What are the challenges facing the party?

Over the past 15 years, Labor has lost the capacity to provide clear answers to central political challenges. This does not only apply to the Middle East peace process, but also to central  domestic political problems such as the widening gap between rich and poor, the continuous tensions between religious and secular groups and the discrimination of the Israeli Arabs. The three central themes that should form the pillars of a new political strategy within Labor and against the governing Right are: 1) the preservation of democracy and pluralism in Israel, 2) the battle for social justice and solidarity and 3) a clear concept for peace with the Palestinian and Arab neighbours.

In its attempt to identify the causes of its crisis, the Labor Party must also consider the following problems. First, the social basis has shrunk dramatically. Avoda has lost its traditional social milieu (Histadrut, Kibbutzim), the middle classes vote Kadima and Likud, and Avoda has no roots in the socially vulnerable groups (Arab citizens, Jews of oriental descent, Russian-born Israelis). Second, as a result of permanent co-governing the party has lost its own political identity. “Opposition” and “clear-cut political positioningare words that disappeared from their vocabulary. Third, the discrepancy between word and deed, under Barak in particular, led the party to lose its most valuable asset: political credibility. Fourth, Avoda is no longer the political representative of the peace camp. It lost this prominent role for its political relevance to Kadima. Fifth, the party is intellectually uninspired and politically speechless. Ever since Yitzhak Rabin, Avoda has failed to develop compelling alternatives to right-wing policies. Both in politics and in society, the party remains passive and without concept in the face of increasing undemocratic and nationalist tendencies.

Avoda needs not only develop a clear political alternative to the Israeli Right, it must also make it clear in what ways it distinguishes itself from Kadima. As a result of the coalition with Netanyahu and Lieberman, many Israelis feel that Barak moved the party to the right, whereas Tzipi Livni, who went into clear opposition against Netanyahu and voiced her support for the two-state solution was perceived as 1) the leading voice of the peace camp and 2) her Kadima Party as center-left. Given Avoda's and Meretz’ journey into political irrelevance, it is understandable that many Israeli left-wing voters project their hopes onto Kadima. And there are those who believe one should join Kadima to then, from within, change its direction toward social democracy. This may have been what Amir Peretz and Eitan Cabel had in mind. But Kadima is not a center-left party. It is a centrist party. The party does not adopt a social-democratic but a free-market liberal stance on economic and socio-political issues. Kadima is a successful party within the political center and is certain not to move away from there. Livni herself says Kadima is a national and liberal party.


This may well be Avoda’s last chance to halt its political decline and take a turn for the better. If the party does manage to put an end to the internal rivalries, vote itself a democratically legitimate new leadership and provide genuinely credible responses to the aforementioned questions, it may well succeed in a) rebuilding itself as a social-democratic party; b) becoming the driving force behind the restoration of the Zionist Left and c) appealing to voters as the political alternative to both the Netanyahu-Lieberman tandem and Livni.

There is every indication that Israel needs a genuine political counterweight to its governing Right. Not only because of the complete standstill in the peace process, the crisis in its relationship with the US and the increased isolation of the country by the international community. The democratic Left also needs to gain political depth at home in order to protect Israeli democracy against the nationalist, ultra-orthodox/religious and xenophobic political forces that are gaining influence and pursue their political objectives with consistency and positions of power in the legislative and executive.

The appointment of veteran Micha Harish as acting party chairman and the manner in which the leadership debates have been conducted are anything but a strong message for a resolute departure into a new political future. Does the power struggle within the Labor Party continue even though there is hardly any power left to fight about?

Keine Kommentare: