Barak Stumbles Out Of The Gate
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Barak Stumbles Out Of The Gate

Facebook fiasco and public mistrust in his motives mark Independence effort as coalition is realigned.

Tel Aviv — Within hours of its surprise breakaway from the Labor Party, Ehud Barak’s new Knesset faction, dubbed “Independence,” was quick to roll out its own official Facebook page, complete with a party logo.

But the first exercise in social networking boomeranged as it was overrun by hundreds of Israelis who used the site to ridicule Barak and the rest of the Independence faction.

In response to a sarcastic discussion thread titled “Barak’s achievements,” Zohar Barazani wrote: “Bibi’s faction of prostitutes.” Another said “destruction of the left.”

A third member of the Facebook site wrote: “The Independence faction is proof positive that Leftists and Rightists can cooperate and laugh together.”

Someone else linked to a clip from the YouTube page of Independence Knesset Member Einat Wilf in which she declared shortly after entering the Knesset for Labor a year ago, “I don’t plan to splinter the party. … I believe in a parliamentary system, the [parliamentary seat] belongs to the party and does not belong to you personally.”

The online laugh-in highlighted how Barak’s dramatic defection reinforced his problematic public image.

In a press conference Sunday announcing the new faction, Barak said he had created a centrist faction that would become a political party, and invoked founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Shimon Peres as role models. “Our motto will be what is best and proper for the State of Israel,” he said.

But in a snap poll by Yediot Ahronot, 82 percent said Barak’s demolition of an already-weakened Labor Party was meant to preserve his spot in the Defense Ministry rather than serve the nation’s interests.

“[Barak] is not very likeable or charismatic or credible to begin with,” said Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University.

Barak’s move to preserve his partnership with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was lauded by some Israeli analysts as a cunning political maneuver that is expected by some to stabilize the governing coalition. Others say the verdict is still out. Coalition defections have historically triggered a prolonged unraveling, ending in elections.

Netanyahu and Barak were able to jettison Labor colleagues who threatened to pull out of the government in protest over the moribund peace process, leaving the coalition smaller but potentially more cohesive on foreign policy issues.

The immediate resignation of Labor’s loyalist parliament members shrinks Netanyahu’s governing coalition to 66 from 74 seats in the 120-member Knesset. It also reshapes the government’s image of a narrow alliance of hawkish and religious parties rather than a broad coalition straddling Israel’s political center.

But if Barak’s Labor rivals had succeeded in passing a resolution on withdrawal from the coalition in Labor’s governing committee, it would have forced the entire party to resign, leaving Netanyahu with a bare majority of 61. And it would have forced Barak to leave his post as defense minister.

Anonymous Netanyahu aides were quoted in the Israeli media saying that the move would help the peace process. They claimed that months of threats by Labor ministers to withdraw hurt the peace process by encouraging the Palestinian leadership to boycott talks in the hope that a peace process deadlock would bring down the government.

But the suggestion that eight negotiations advocates leaving the governing coalition is a turn of events that could help the talks seems counterintuitive, say some. Labor’s presence has been considered the biggest counterbalance in Netanyahu’s government to coalition hardliners who oppose any concessions to encourage diplomacy.

“The coalition is undergoing changes, and it introduces an element of instability,” said Chemi Shalev, a political commentator for the daily newspaper Yisrael Hayom. “I’m not sure that Washington will not appreciate the change, because they will think that it gives less sway to Barak.”

The move will curtail Barak’s sway in the cabinet, while shifting power to the ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the ultra-religious Interior Minister Eli Yishai.

“Barak’s official status as defense minister and as acting foreign minister did not change yesterday, but the aura surrounding him disappeared. In the first two years of the Netanyahu government’s term, he played first violin. The majority in the cabinet was careful to give him respect, for fear that the Labor Party faction might quit,” wrote Nahum Barnea in Yediot Achronot.

“That fear dissipated yesterday,” Barnea wrote. “There is no going back for Barak and crew. In a certain sense, Barak turned yesterday from a partner into a collaborator. The settlers are going to eat him alive. They will make it hard for him to continue to enact the policies he has enacted to date, restricting construction for Jews and scaling back the restrictions on Palestinians.”

Announcing his resignation from the cabinet as Social Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog — one of eight lawmakers to remain in Labor — said it is time “to stop lying to ourselves and resign from this government that brought us to a deadlock in the pursuit of peace and forced on us Avigdor Lieberman and his party in a racist discourse that threatens our democratic regime.”

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Analysts said the splintering of Labor marked a new low point in the demise of Israel’s political left, which has been steadily shrinking ever since Barak presided over the failure of the Oslo peace talks with the Palestinians in 2000. More than a decade afterward, the Zionist left, which once monopolized Israeli public life, is a political wasteland.

Last Saturday night thousands of left-wing demonstrators accused Barak and Labor of serving as accomplices to the ultra-nationalist agenda of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has promoted a parliamentary inquiry into funding of left-wing nonprofit advocacy groups.

Labor and its forerunner, Mapai, was the socialist party of Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and enjoyed uninterrupted rule from 1948 to 1977. The party is also saddled with dozens of millions of shekels of debt. Meretz, further to the left of Labor, is also at an all-time low with a party leader who recently announced his resignation from the Knesset.

On Monday, a group of four of the eight remaining Labor Knesset members sought to quash speculation of a new split in the party, by declaring they would not bolt as well.

Though some analysts suggested Labor’s fortunes could be revived with a charismatic leader, others argued that despite its brand, the party has lost its ideological path. After the centrist Kadima and then the center-right Likud leadership embraced the idea of a Palestinian state, Labor’s position amid the Israeli political spectrum became blurred.

“I don’t see any leader in Labor with the vision or the charisma able to restore Israel’s once preeminent party to a position of even respectable decline,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

“The Israeli political system today is essentially a debate within the Likud family: Kadima is Liberal Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu is nationalist Likud; and the Likud is “pragmatic Likud. The disintegration of Labor is an expression of what the Israeli public today wants.”

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