With the kind of surprise that was his military trademark, Defense Minister Ehud Barak shook up Israeli politics on Monday with his surprise announcement that he is abandoning the Labor Party he led and creating a new faction, Atzmaut (Independence), which will remain in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Glib predictions about what this will mean for the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process and for relations with Washington are premature. In the volatile Middle East and the unpredictable world of Israeli politics, Monday’s shakeup can play out in many different ways. But one result seems likely: Barak’s resignation from Labor may clarify a political climate that has become murkier in the past few years.
The left-of-center Labor Party’s participation in Netanyahu’s right-of-center coalition blurred key political differences in the Jewish state and muddied debate over issues that will determine Israel’s future, starting with but not limited to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Barak’s departure may clarify positions in these vital discussions. A vibrant, clearly defined opposition is a hallmark of any democracy. Labor’s participation in a government dominated by factions with very different values and positions hampered its ability to perform that function.
There’s little question Barak’s move strengthened Netanyahu’s hold on power. Whether that proves a blessing or a curse depends on what the prime minister does next as Israel faces a host of vexing problems, including political chaos in Lebanon, a worldwide campaign of delegitimization and increasingly public questions about democracy and civil rights within the Jewish state.
The new Netanyahu-Barak alliance may give the prime minister additional political latitude in dealing with the Iran threat. Less clear is what the dramatic shift means for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. More and more, Barak has been Israel’s diplomatic face to the world, especially in dealings with the Obama administration. A more prominent role for Barak, who enjoys a level of international respect that has eluded Lieberman, can only be a plus as Israel battles the growing forces of delegitimization.
The disintegration of the Labor Party, which played such a vital role in Israel’s first half century, is the inevitable consequence of shortsighted and ineffective leadership. Labor’s dovish views on making peace with the Palestinians seemed increasingly out of touch after the failure of the Oslo Accords, the brutal second intifada and the Gaza takeover by Hamas. By clarifying Labor’s role in the current political environment, this week’s events offer at least the possibility the proud old party may revitalize itself and strengthen its role as a responsible voice of opposition. But in addition to finding strong leadership, it will need to define a position that resonates with an Israeli society that has been moved to the right by events in recent years.