Could This Be the End?

January 17, 2011 5:05 a.m.

The end of the Israeli Labor Party has been a slow motion story going back more than thirty years and in a particularly acute form over the last decade. But this might really be the beginning of the end. After the last election Labor, which arguably founded the country and led its governments for the first thirty years, fell to an historic low of thirteen seats (out of 120) in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Likud, the historic party of the right, had fallen to a similar low not long ago only to storm back to be the current governing party. The difference is that Likud’s raison d’etre had not been similarly damaged by political and coalition developments within the Israeli political system.

Which brings us to today when Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister and current head of Labor, split the already diminished party and left it to form a new party. Normally it’s the dissidents who break off and form a new party, not the head of the party (though arguably Ariel Sharon did something very similar in 2006, albeit from a position of vastly greater strength).There’s been a running feud over the last couple of years over whether Labor should be in Netanyahu’s rightist coalition government at all.

Remember, to the extent there’s any logic to these things, the notional ideological taxonomy is (from right to left) Likud > Kadima > Labor. But Kadima is the main opposition party. And Labor, which again is notionally to left of Kadima, is in the coalition government with Likud. Now, in the midst of growing unrest within the party, Barak, the leader of the party has left Labor, along with three other MKs (members of the Knesset), to form a new party, Independence, and remain in the coalition. Presumably, Labor, now down to eight MKs, will now go into opposition.

Labor institutionalists have argued that the obvious split in Israeli politics today is over the peace process and between two-staters and the nationalist camp. By keeping the Labor in a rightist coalition it throws the party’s entire raison d’etre into question.

The larger question is what will happen to Labor in the next election. A number of Labor MKs went to Kadima when it was formed back in 2006. That’s the party Ariel Sharon formed after leaving Likud (the coalition party he played a key role in founding in the early 1970s — yes, it gets complicated.) If you’re an Israeli who wants to vote for a potential governing party which is at least in principle in favor of a two-state solution, Kadima seems like your obvious choice. If you want a more clearly left pro-Peace Process party, you’ll probably want to vote for Meretz, another party with historic ties to the Labor tradition in the country.

Somewhat like the British Labour party, Labor has institutional ties to the Israeli labor movement which may help keep it afloat as a political party. But in the current situation, why you would vote for Labor, other than for reasons of its historic legacy or mere habit, is not clear.

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