In recent years I have sometimes cynically commented that the Labor Party, once Israel’s dominant political force, had been reduced to little more than a vehicle for putting one of its leaders in the Defense Minister’s chair. From 2006 to 2009, it was Amir Peretz, under the Kadima-led government of Ehud Olmert. Since the 2009 election it has been Ehud Barak, in the Likud-led government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Today’s developments suggest that my cynicism was well placed: given the choice, Barak will take the Defense Ministry over sitting in opposition. The Labor party has been in internal turmoil, in part because its relatively more flexible line with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict renders it an unnatural appendage to a coalition with little interest in the “peace process.” An upcoming Labor internal vote likely would have produced a decision to take the party out of the coalition, and possibly also dumped Barak as party leader.
Barak will remain as Defense Minister, now heading a new party to be called Atzmaut (Independence). He will be joined in the new party by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, and MKs Shalom Simhon, Einat Wilf and Ori Noked. These remnants within the coalition will be enough to keep the government’s majority in the Knesset intact. Had the Labor Party bolted as a bloc, the government would have become a minority cabinet, and might have precipitated early elections.
Speaking of elections, Labor’s standing in polls has been sliding badly. A “breaking news” item at the top of the Haaretz website says that the remnant Labor would receive 6 seats and Atzmaut 3 were an election held now. Labor received 13 seats (out of 120) in February, 2009.