18 January 2011, by
Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, appears to have driven the final nail in the coffin of the Zionist left with his decision to split from the Labor party and create a new "centrist, Zionist" faction in the Israeli parliament. So far four MPs, out of a total of 12, have announced they are following him.
Moments after Barak’s press conference on Monday, the Israeli media suggested that the true architect of the Labor party’s split was the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to one of his aides, had planned it like "an elite general staff [military] operation".
Netanyahu has pressing reasons for wanting Barak to stay in the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. He has provided useful diplomatic cover as Netanyahu has stymied progress in a US-sponsored peace process.
Barak had been happy to oblige as the government’s fig-leaf, so long as he was allowed to hold on to his post overseeing the occupation of the Palestinians. But as Labor became little more than a one-man show, it was racked with revolts, its MPs and handful of cabinet ministers regularly threatening to pull out of the coalition.
Netanyahu, however, has a larger purpose in seeking to draft the Labor party’s obituary — one related to the cementing of a domestic consensus behind the right’s vision of a Greater Israel. The prime minister is hoping to unpick the last strands of the Israel created by the founders of Labor Zionism.
Labor’s impact on Zionism was truly formative. During the 1948 war, the party’s leaders established Israel as a socialist state — even if it was of a strange variety that worried almost exclusively about the welfare of its Jewish majority and carefully engineered systematic discrimination against the fifth of the citizenry who were Palestinian.
For the next three decades Labor ran Israel virtually as a one-party state, centrally directing the economy and its major industries through the party’s affiliated trade union federation known as the Histadrut.
Labor’s political power rested on its economic power. Most of Israel’s middle and working classes relied for their employment on state corporations, the security industries, the civil service and government firms — and that ensured votes for Labor.
But as Israel’s economy began to wane, so did Labor’s electoral fortunes. The rightwing Likud party — home to Netanyahu — won power for the first time in 1977, championing both the settlements and economic privatisation. These moves further weakened Labor.
The party recovered only in the early 1990s, under former general Yitzhak Rabin, who reinvented it as a "peace party". Rabin adopted the Oslo accords that, it was widely assumed, would eventually lead to Palestinian statehood.
The Oslo process had its own economic, as well as political, logic. The Labor party, which had lost its chief rationale following economic privatisation, now promised that regional peace would open up lucrative new global markets, especially in China and India. The ultra-nationalism of Likud was presented as a barrier to trade and growth.
But peace failed to materialise, and the settlements’ continuing expansion steadily eroded the Palestinians’ belief in Israel’s good faith. Labor’s last shot at peace-making was the Camp David summit of 2000. When Barak, as prime minister, failed to reach a final-status agreement with the Palestinians, claiming there was "no partner", he killed off Israel’s fickle peace camp and made his party politically irrelevant again.
In the following years, Barak continued to undermine Labor. In joining Netanyahu’s government, he visibly abandoned Labor’s two official missions: to protect the poor and defend the peace process.
With Netanyahu’s help, he now appears to have finished off Labor for good. His centrist party known as Atzmaut or Independence — working inside the government — will replicate the platform of Israel’s large opposition party, Kadima.
Atzmaut’s ideology, Barak has already made clear, will depart from Labor’s. At his press conference he denounced his former colleagues as representing "the left and post-Zionism".
Avishai Braverman, a dovish and disgruntled Labor minister until Barak’s split, responded bitterly that the new party would be "Likud A at best and Lieberman B at worst" — a reference to Avigdor Lieberman, the ultra-nationalist foreign minister.
Labor’s breakup highlights both the continuing shift rightwards in Israel and Barak’s obssessive placing of his personal ambitions above all else. The defence ministry has become his personal fiefdom.
What will now become of the Zionist left in Israel? The few remaining Labor MPs will probably either knock on Kadima’s door, a natural home for a growing number of them, or unite with the tiny other left party, Meretz. Together, the surviving left will struggle to match the paltry number of Arab MPs. At the next election, the Zionist left may all but disappear from the parliamentary stage.
Its demise, however, should not be lamented. It has been in terminal decline for decades.
What its disappearance may do is free up the political landscape for a real left to emerge in Israel, one less tied to the onerous legacy of Labor Zionism and prepared to collaborate creatively with the Palestinian national movements. That is an outcome not considered in Netanyahu’s scheming.
Labor’s failure offers a potent lesson for this new left. The old party’s success was dependent on offering the Israeli public not just a political vision but an economic one too. Israelis will not welcome the compromises needed for peace unless they believe there are material incentives to make such sacrifices worthwhile.
The new left already understands the power of the stick of international sanctions looming over Israel. But it must also offer a carrot to the Israeli public: a vision in which an Israel at peace with its neighbours will bring about a better quality of life.
That will be the first, formidable task facing the post-Barak left.