Rump Group of Labor Lawmakers Buck Barak on Joining New Government

Split: Dissenting Labor Party Knesset members could make life difficult for Ehud Barak, above, who will stay on as defense minister.
Getty Images
Split: Dissenting Labor Party Knesset members could make life difficult for Ehud Barak, above, who will stay on as defense minister.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published March 29, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.

Dissenters may have been unable to block the Labor Party’s recent decision to join the otherwise right-wing government coalition headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. But with seven of the party’s 13 Knesset members among those who opposed the move, they are well positioned to make life very difficult for Labor leader Ehud Barak, who spearheaded the drive.

After the March 24 vote by Labor’s central committee to join Netanyahu’s government, two of the party’s seven dissenting legislators ultimately supported the coalition at the formal March 31 Knesset vote — one, Avishay Braverman, after being lured with the offer of a ministry.

His Turn: Newly installed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, sits at the head of the cabinet ministers’ table after the March 31 swearing in of his new government.
GETTY IMAGES
His Turn: Newly installed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, sits at the head of the cabinet ministers’ table after the March 31 swearing in of his new government.

But the remaining five all abstained on the Knesset vote. One of them, Shelly Yacimovich, denounced the new government as a “farce” and “the greediest most wasteful government in the history of the nation” — an allusion to Netanyahu’s conferring cabinet minister status to 30 Knesset supporters, each with a car, driver and budget, in order to assemble his coalition.

The final tally was 69 Knesset members voting for the coalition, 45 opposing it, plus the five Labor Party abstentions

Now, the five rebels will “give hell on each and every issue,” predicted former cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon. “They will make quarrels and headlines, even to a point where resolutions [backed by Labor] won’t have legitimacy among the public and where they can say they don’t represent the Labor party.”

Maimon speaks from bitter experience. He was cabinet secretary in 2005 when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lost the support of 13 lawmakers in his own Likud party over the government’s decision to disengage from Gaza. Maimon recalled that they were considered by Sharon “as part of the opposition” — not just on votes linked to Gaza but on all matters, both in the Knesset and in generating negative publicity against the government.

According to Tel Aviv University political scientist Dani Koren, “You are talking about a situation where there are two distinguishable factions or alliances within the [Labor] party…. They will not allow him to have peace of mind; Barak will continually have to be on his defense.”

In short, observers believe that a struggle will now ensue for the soul of what is left of the Labor Party, the historic faction that established the state, led it for decades and later also served, when election results mandated, as the country’s leading opposition party. Barak’s camp is believed to fear that in this struggle, his Achilles’ heel could lie in the details of the workings of Knesset.

Every faction in the 120-member Knesset has seats on numerous parliamentary committees, which conduct a large proportion of the chamber’s business. These committees are composed of lawmakers who are not ministers. In Labor’s case, this role will fall to a group of five to seven Knesset representatives, all of whom opposed Labor’s decision to join the coalition in the first place. Netanyahu has given Barak the right to appoint six Knesset Laborites cabinet or deputy cabinet positions to entice him and his supporters into bringing Labor into his coalition.

“They can cause a lot of trouble by delaying things,” said Galia Golan, professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Herzliya’s Interdisciplinary Center, referring to the dissenters. “That is the power of committees: If the government wants things to pass through committees, the committees can delay them and delay them and delay them.”

In the wake of Israel’s Feb. 10 election, Labor’s parliamentary strength is at an all-time low. The party’s vote to accept Netanyahu’s enticements, viewed widely as generous, will give the Likud leader a total of 69 votes in the 120-seat body; or, as little as 62 — still a majority — if all seven of the dissenters were to withhold their support.

For some Laborites, the March 24 decision to join the coalition was a shrewd move to keep their party relevant. But for others it was a betrayal of everything it stands for.

Given that Kadima, which outpolled Labor, and even Likud, is now leading the opposition, Labor’s voice would have counted for little outside the government, Barak and his allies reasoned. “Whoever wants Labor as a spare tire in the opposition instead of a counterweight to the right in the government doesn’t know what he is talking about,” he told the party conference, which voted to enter the coalition.

But others took a very different view. Party icons David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin “are turning in their graves,” declared Ophir Paz-Pines, one of the dissenting Knesset members. “They formed this country, and we are privileged to continue their path.

He went on to say: “We in Labor have an obligation to maintain their honor and our spine. We are expected to maintain Labor’s values and not act like the lowest politician by joining every government.”

Initially, coming out of talks after the February election, Barak said that Labor would rebuild itself in opposition. But he changed his mind after a late-March proposition from Likud. Dubbed by many analysts a package too good to refuse, it allows Barak to stay on as defense minister, which some believe he is especially keen to do as he already has plans for a possible attack on Iran that he is reluctant to hand over to a successor. It gives Labor four other ministries, meets many of its economic demands, boosts the power of unions, and makes Barak “full partner” in the peace process.

Some commentators say that Labor’s Knesset dissenters will reconcile with the Barak camp and become loyal to the government. “They will stay in Labor and fight a bit from the inside. But when it comes to it, they will vote with the government,” said pollster and analyst Mitchell Barak, CEO of Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications.

The reason, he said, is that the coalition agreement gives Labor an opportunity to heavily influence policies on the economy that are of concern to workers, and the rebel lawmakers will want to be involved in that. He said: “We’ve got factories closing down and people losing jobs, and this is a chance for Labor to make an impact.”

Mitchell Barak, no relation to Ehud Barak, said that Labor “can’t beat” Kadima on the peace process, but he believes that entering government in the midst of an economic crisis will give the party a chance to “go back to its Labor roots.”

Another possibility is that the Labor dissenters’ actions will depend on the popularity of the government. Bar Ilan University political scientist Jonathan Rynhold, co-editor of the upcoming book “Israel at the Polls 2009,” said that the dissenters could try to take out of the coalition. If this happens, he predicted, it will be in response to a government action that would give them justification in the eyes of the public. But if the government proves popular, Rynhold predicts they will become closer to the Barak camp. “If its approach is seen by the mainstream public as basically solid and grounded, they will not want to cause problems.

“Especially if Netanyahu dismantles some illegal outposts, which is not inconceivable, what are they going to do to justify causing difficulties?”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com



Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.