One of the aspects of Israeli politics which has surprised me over the years, is the extent to which former military men have decided to become politicians for the Labour Party after retiring from the IDF. In my eyes, being a career soldier conjures up the vision of right-wing leanings, even though many of the most famous of Israel’s military men have a kibbutz background. Despite this fact, there are a number of examples of former generals who have joined the Labour party, and even a few who have gone on to serve as Labour prime ministers. The most famous of these is the late Yitzchak Rabin who previously served as military chief of general staff (ramatkal in Hebrew). Another former ramatkal who went on to become prime minister is Ehud Barak. His true political views have, however, been brought into sharp focus due to events over the past week.
Barak announced last week that he has left the Labour party and resigned as its chairman. Instead, he has decided to form his own new party, the Atzmaut (independence) party. Were it not for the fact that he decimated Labour’s Knesset faction by taking 5 out of Labour’s 13 Knesset seats (including his own) out of the party and into the new Atzmaut Knesset faction, there may have been a small cheer from Labour faithful that Barak has left the party. For the Labour party, this Knesset has been characterised by splits and divisions over whether the party’s true place is in the coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Ehud Barak has been at the centre of this controversy.
Immediately following his unsuccessful term as prime minister which ended in 2001, Barak left the political arena for 6 years. Since returning to politics in 2007, he has served as minister of defence and a member of the cabinet. For Barak, this seems to be the position that he desires most, and it seems as though he is prepared to do almost anything to retain it. A number of Labour’s Knesset faction were unhappy when Barak took Labour into the coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu. The main source of the dissatisfaction was the fact that the Labour party ministers are forced to sit around the cabinet table with Avigdor Lieberman, and other members of his Yisrael Beiteinu party. Less likely bed fellows would be difficult to find, and Labour party members certainly felt it.
Despite this fact, the Labour ministers have continued to serve in the government. In terms of government policies, the least comfortable aspect of serving in this government has related to the way in which the peace negotiations have been managed. It has been clear that many of the Labour party Knesset members have been extremely unhappy about being part of a government that has managed the peace negotiations in a way which is so opposite to that in which they would choose. A great deal of pressure has been exercised on the Labour leadership to withdraw from the government as a protest. Because this has not been the unanimous view of all members of the faction, it has resulted in a great deal of in-fighting and lack of unity amongst the 13 Knesset members. Interestingly, it has been party leader and defence minister Ehud Barak who has been one of those most eager to stay in the government.
By choosing to stay in the government, Barak has been accused of not remaining true and loyal to Labour party basic beliefs. He has preferred to bring about Labour’s influence from within the ranks of the government, rather than from the opposition benches. There are those who have accused Barak of selling out on Labour’s principles, and putting his own personal agenda ahead of the party and the country. He stands accused of keeping Labour in the government only to ensure that he is able to continue serving in a senior government role. This disagreement has proved too much for Barak, and is ultimately what led him to walk away from Labour to form the Barak Atzmaut party.
What is noticeable about the Atzmaut party is that it has only been presented as a “centrist Zionist party”. We know little else about the party, its policies and what its election platform would be. Despite this fact, the party holds five Knesset seats and four government portfolios, including minister of defence. This is surely a highly unusual situation in a democratic country. For Barak, it is ideal. He can continue to be minister of defence without having to continuously answer to the Labour party faithful as to why he is not acting in a way which is true to the party’s beliefs and policies. He is now able to act almost as he wishes. without having to account to any particular constituency.
Israel’s political middle ground has become a very crowded space. Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party is also in the centre, although I imagine probably to the right of the Atzmaut party. Both Labour on the left and Likud on the right have shown signs of encroaching on the middle ground. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu attracted the support that it received. It is the only truly right-wing party in Israeli politics, and accordingly receives support of those on the right side of centre.
I would be surprised if Atzmaut has a long-term future in Israeli politics. It feels like a niche party to satisfy the whims of Ehud Barak. I feel more confident that Labour will recover from the act of decimating the party which has been carried out by its former leader. This is a party which has a history of fighting for its values, principles and ideals. It has a substantial base of support in the kibbutz movement and the trade union movement. Although I have never been a great supporter of Labour policies, I do respect and recognise the important role the party has played in building the State of Israel.
As for Ehud Barak, he will go down in history as a traitor and a person who used public office for the promotion of his personal status and agenda, rather than for the greater good. This is an enormous tragedy for him personally, and for Israel.