Ehud Barak and his followers in Israel’s Labour party did analysts a huge favour this week. Like lemmings jumping off a cliff, they settled the question of what was the most remarkable aspect of the recent Israeli election cycle: the rise of the right or the demise of the left. Their entry into the Netanyahu-Lieberman right wing freak show called a cabinet proves that mainstream progressive politics is now so dead in Israel that it begs the question if it ever really existed (OK, scoff if you want).
Labour had been a dead party walking for a while, riven by defections, threatened with irrelevance over the peace process and ideologically moribund, and it was clobbered in the February elections. The party’s dismal fourth place in the polls, behind right wing superman Lieberman, represented a low-point for the movement that founded the state and did it partly on socialist, collectivist principles. The only possible way to recovery would have been a long stint in the opposition benches, a major rethink, back to the roots etc. Incredibly, Barak interpreted the election results as a message from the voters that they wanted Labour in the government.
Whatever Barak’s motives, and let’s not give him the benefit of the doubt on that score, the result of Labour’s move is that the left in Israel has ceased to exist as a force. Tsipi Livni’s Kadima is a Frankenstein’s monster of a party, stitched together from the soft left and the hard right, that sprung from the hefty loins of the now comatose Ariel Sharon, who narrowly escaped being put on trial for war crimes. This mongrel party can be called anything but left wing and the fact that it’s the major force in Israeli politics that is still advocating the two-state solution is as baffling as it is suspect.
Anyway, that party may be over soon. Kadima is another walking corpse and it’s the one most likely to start coming apart at the stitches. That, at least has been the pattern of other upstart big men vehicles in Israel in the past, for example Ben Gurion’s and Moshe Dayan’s Rafi party in the 1960’s and Yigal Yadin’s Dash in the 1970’s. The moment that they have outlived their purpose, i.e. when they don’t deliver government posts, its different components will scurry back to the richer feeding grounds of their original parties.
This is the only way in which Barak’s decision makes sense, from a party political point of view. First, committed right wingers such as Shaul Mofaz, the general who almost single-handedly fanned the flames of the second Palestinian intifadah, and thuggish Tsahi Hanegbi, will run back to the governing Likud party. Then, some of Kadima’s centre-left opportunist, maybe Haim Ramon and some others, may return to a Labour party that is at least in power and able to disburse political largesse. Labour may even overtake Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu again, which might be the ultimate point of the cynical exercise.
But even if Labour regains some of its errant politicians and manages to remain a functioning party, it will forever have lost the right to call itself left wing. Never mind that it has been complicit in settlement building from the get-go and that Barak approached the peace process as if it were a way to show Palestinian perfidy and never mind that on Labour’s watch the gap between rich and poor in Israel has become the second biggest in the western world, behind the United States. Nobody’s perfect. But lending a sheen of respectability to one of the nastiest right wing government’s that the country has ever seen disqualifies it forever from staking any claim to a political ideology.
It would almost be a reason to call for Labour’s expulsion from the Socialist International. Almost, because look at the other so-called socialist member parties from around the region: the Kurdish PUK in Iraq and Walid Jumblat’s PSP in Lebanon. Israel’s Labour party actually fits perfectly in that roster of pseudo-socialist feudal one-man shows.