Losing Support and Suffering Defections, Labor Party Is in a ‘Struggle for Life’

By Nathan Jeffay

Published October 28, 2009, issue of November 06, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

With a new poll putting its support at an all-time low, and its leader, Ehud Barak, more isolated than ever, Israel’s Labor Party is now in for the fight of its life.

Struggling: Labor leader Ehud Barak is increasingly isolated in his own party.
GETTY IMAGES
Struggling: Labor leader Ehud Barak is increasingly isolated in his own party.

The dominant political faction for the State of Israel’s first three decades, Labor was embarrassed by its performance in February’s general election — with its representation dropping to 13, from 19, of the chamber’s 120 seats.

According to an October 23 survey published in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, the party’s support is nearly half of what it was when Israel went to the ballot box in February. If the elections were held today, pollsters reported, Labor would win just seven seats.

Barak is reeling after Daniel Ben-Simon, chair of the Labor Knesset faction, turned on him. Ben-Simon was responsible for trying to get the lawmakers — many of them ill-disposed to take orders from Barak after he ignored their objections and joined Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish coalition — to vote according to his instructions. But on October 18, Ben-Simon resigned from his position as faction chairman, saying that Barak is unsuitable to lead a dovish party.

“The man heading Labor is responsible for the outposts,” Ben-Simon said at the press conference where he announced his resignation. “I cannot accept that.”

Instead of arguing that he is still a left-winger, Barak responded by going after the left, claiming that it has lost sight of the difficulties of reaching a peace agreement. “The left is acting like a small child that says, ‘I want peace,’” he said at an October 26 Labor faction meeting. In a sign of the times, only six lawmakers attended the meeting.

Analysts say that the situation facing Labor is serious. “This is the struggle for life,” said Eran Vigoda-Gadot, head of the political science department at Haifa University. He predicts that the party will go into a state of hibernation for at least four years, lying low as a political force, and playing the role of a minor coalition partner, as it waits for new leadership and an opportunity for a comeback. “This was the party that established the State of Israel, and it is now in one of the deepest crises you can imagine,” he said.

After the general election, seven of the 13 Labor lawmakers were against joining the hawkish coalition, but Barak went in anyway. Four of the lawmakers reacted furiously. One of them, Ophir Paz-Pines, declared that party icons David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin were “turning in their graves.” When it has come to Knesset votes, the four have conducted themselves as independent lawmakers.

Unfortunately for Barak, the breakaway of these four from his authority was just the start of his internal battle. His one-time close ally Eitan Cabel not only became one of the rebel lawmakers, but also one of Barak’s most vocal critics — claiming, in an interview with Israel Radio, that Barak “led the Labor Party to the greatest and most severe failure in its history.”

Last May, Cabel resigned as the party’s secretary general.

Through his growing isolation, Barak could rely on the loyalty of his coalition chairman. But when Ben-Simon announced his resignation, his claims echoed Cabel’s.

Ben-Simon wrote in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, justifying his decision to resign, that he recently said to Barak: “Look, Ehud, there is no peace process, there are no negotiations, there’s no settlement freeze or outpost evacuation. We haven’t done anything we promised the public.”

According to Ben-Simon’s account of the recent conversation: “[Barak] said we have no partner, that there’s no one to talk to. I remembered that nearly a decade before, when we heard similar lines from Barak, they sank the country into despair and brought a series of misfortunes in their wake.”

Inside the Knesset, there are now rumblings of discontent among Labor’s government ministers, who have stood by Barak. Avishay Braverman, initially one of the seven opposed to joining the coalition, eventually supported Barak’s decision after being lured with the post of minority affairs minister. Together with Ben-Simon and Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog, he recently tried to persuade Barak to jump-start talks with the Palestinians. He failed and, on October 24, he declared at a party event in Modi’in, in Central Israel. “With no diplomatic horizon, the party has no right to exist.”

Analysts say that Labor’s downward spiral in the polls, the split between Barak and Ben-Simon, and tension between Barak and other lawmakers are symptoms of the same problem. It is a growing disconnect between Barak, who, as defense minister, directed the military operation in Gaza last winter and has since signed off building permits for the settlements, and his party’s traditional devotees, whether politicians, activists or voters.

Until now, the Labor Party rebels have not had the option of starting their own breakaway faction, as rules stipulate that a breakaway party needs one-third of a faction; however, if the rebels can convince Ben-Simon to go in with them, they will be able to go it alone.

Analysts point to the possibility of a breakaway to form a new party by rebels — or even by Barak. Other options include the defection of some lawmakers to Kadima and the defection of Barak to Likud. Sandler believes that all these are possible, saying that while the last option sounds unlikely, stranger things have happened in Israeli politics. “He’s closer to Likud than to Labor,” Sandler added.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com






Find us on Facebook!
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

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.