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Barak Bolts From Labor, Forms New Faction; Laborites Flee Bibi’s Coalition

This is pretty small potatoes compared to what’s going on elsewhere in our neighborhood, but Israel is having a political upheaval of its own.

Bibi’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, has quit the Labor Party — of which he was chairman — and is forming a new faction, Atzmaut (Independence). The split was reportedly the product of “the intensive and secret intervention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu” and was conducted “like an elite General Staff operation,”according to one of Bibi’s aides. If Haaretz is to be believed, the impetus for the split was provided by the Americans, who let it be known recently that they are disgusted with Barak for “deceiving” them with regard to his influence over Bibi concerning the peace process. Bibi apparently saw Barak’s discomfiture as an opportunity to bring him closer while simultaneously off-loading the Labor portion of his coalition, which has been a serious irritant to him for quite some time.

Accompanying Barak into the new faction will be four former Laborite members of the current government: Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, and MK’s Shalom Simhon, Einat Wilf and Ori Noked. The rupture reflects the internal strife that has been plaguing the Labor Party for months over its continuing participation in Bibi’s government. Barak has been under constant fire from Laborites fed up with his refusal to quit a government that in their view is largely responsible for the degeneration of the peace process with the Palestinians.

Barak’s object is to stay inside Bibi’s government in a “centrist, Zionist, and democratic party,” and a Likud-Atzmaut coalition agreement is being hammered out even as I type this post. Labor ministers Isaac Herzog (Social Affairs), Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Trade, Industry and Labor), and Avishay Braverman (Minority Affairs) bolted the current coalition as soon as news broke of Barak’s abandonment of the party. (Had they not resigned of their own accord, they would almost certainly have been dismissed.)

The three might well be relieved to no longer be associated with a government with which they have a passionate ideological disagreement and a party leader in whom they have no faith. They certainly aren’t mincing words. As Herzog put it in his resignation, “The time has come to stop lying to ourselves and leave the government which has brought us to a dead-end and forced upon us Avigdor Lieberman and his party with its unacceptable racist discourse, which threatens our democracy.” Ben-Eliezer said Yitzhak Rabin is “turning over in his grave” at the damage Barak has wrought upon the Labor Party. Ex-Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman put it neatly: he told Haaretz that the “real struggle now” is to “topple the regime of Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Barak.”

It’s as well that Barak is holed up trying to get the wording of the new coalition agreement in place because he’s being roundly attacked from all sides. MK Aryeh Eldad, of the right-wing National Union – National Religious Party, said rather pithily that “[t]he fragmentation of the Labor Party is only half the battle; the second half will take place when Barak ends his political career and puts us out of our misery.” Weighing in on the far left was MK Ilan Gilon, whip of the Meretz party, who said Barak “never shared the values of the Labor movement…We can only hope that the rest of the Labor faction still sitting in the government will leave the coalition as well.” Opposition leader and Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni sees a possible opportunity in the disarray. “The Netanyahu government is a narrow government that is crumbling from within due to political degeneration and the absence of direction or vision,” Livni said. “The only medicine for the government’s political opportunism and loss of principles is elections. Kadima calls again today in a loud clear voice – go to elections.” A source Haaretz declines to identify — intriguingly enough, a Likudnik — said Barak “has established his own Lieberman-like political party, and has surrounded himself with four dwarves who will do his bidding.”

Fur is flying, mud is being slung, but no one is likely to be physically injured and little in terms of policy is likely to change.