A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Decline and Decline of the Israeli Labor Party

Time to talk about something other than Tunisia. Since Ehud Barak's announcement on Monday that he was resigning the leadership of Israel's Labor Party in order to form a new party, called Atzmaut (Indpendence), and the realignments that have followed, what is left of Israel's Labor Party now holds only eight seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

There was a time when Labor and (before it was created in its present form in 1968) its largest direct ancestor, Mapai, could count on winning as many as 45 to 47 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. (No single party has ever won enough seats to govern without forming a coalition.) In the 1950s, 1960s, and a good part of the 1970s, Mapai and later Labor were consistently at the core of government. All that began to change with the Likud victory in the 1977 elections.

Still, Labor alternated power with Likud throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and in the 1990s became the champion of the Oslo Peace Process. As popular opinion turned against Oslo, it also deserted Labor. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 marked a turning point, leaving Shimon Peres as the last of the founding generation still in Labor (though he had often been outside the mainstream as an ally of Ben Gurion in Rafi in the 1950s and 1960s). The formation of the centrist Kadima Party by Ariel Sharon and others (eventually including Peres) drained the party of more loyalists in the past decade. Throughout the 2000s, such leaders as Amram Mitzna, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Amir Peretz were barely familiar faces outside Israel, as the party's influence shrank. Even so, in the 2006 elections Labor won 19 seats, running second to Kadima, with Likud relegated to third place. Barak returned to the leadership in 2007, after Amir Peretz' performance during the Lebanon War of 2006 came in for criticism.

In 2009, however, Labor won only 13 seats, reducing the once dominant party to fourth place in the Knesset, behind Kadima, Likud, and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu. Barak's decision to join Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud in what is otherwise Israel's most right-wing coalition in its history has split the party, with four MKs threatening to leave, but now, Barak and four allies have bolted, and the four who were planning to leave (Amir Peretz, Eitan Cabel, Raleb Majadele and Daniel Ben-Simon) find themselves half of the Labor Party caucus. Ha'aretz has dubbed them the "Final Four," though they are really part of the final eight.

That leaves only eight Labor MKs. Barak and his allies in Atzmaut, will get four portfolios in Netanyahu's Cabinet, while three Labor ministers who did not join Barak have quit the government, so Labor is no longer part of the coalition.

Barak's move has drawn a great deal of criticism; it also further marginalizes a once dominant party, now seemingly a shadow of its former self, and further fragments what remains of the Israeli left. It also makes the current coalition even more firmly rightist than before, with Kadima now firmly identified as the main opposition bloc.

The party of David Ben-Gurion (sometimes), of Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin disappeared some time back. Now Labor isn't even the party of Ehud Barak, who may be remembered only as the last Labor Prime Minister. Ever.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

As you said, he may be "the last Labor Prime Minister." Barak was probably also the the least capable of the lot. Which would be a sad end for a military hero and a great strategic thinker who correctly grasped the essence of Israel's long term interests. He lacked the politician's ability to build a strong domestic team and the statesman's ability to deal effectively with Israel's neighbors.