BICOM Briefing: Israeli Labour Party Split


Key points

  • Defence Minister and Labour party leader Ehud Barak, along with four other Knesset members, split today from the Labour Knesset faction to form a new party called ‘Atzmaut’ (Independence). They will, however, remain in the governing coalition with Barak as defence minister.
  • Labour’s remaining eight Knesset members are in the process of leaving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, but the government will still retain a comfortable majority. So far, Isaac Herzog, Avishai Braverman and Benjamin (Fouad) Ben-Eliezer have tendered their government resignations, but will remain MKs.
  • The development is another blow to Labour, which has suffered declining support in recent years, reflecting the growth of the centre in Israeli politics.
  • Illustrating this, today sees the launch of a ‘two-state caucus’in the Knesset, supported by Tzipi Livni, the leader of the centrist Kadima party and leader of the opposition.

 What was announced this morning?

  • Defence Minister and Labour party leader Ehud Barak announced his resignation from the Labour party faction in the Knesset and the formation of a new faction to be called ‘Atzmaut’ (‘Independence’), which defines itself as ‘centrist, Zionist and democratic.’
  • Four other Labour government ministers and Knesset members – Minister of Agriculture Shalom Simhon; Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai; Deputy Industry, Trade and Labour Minister Ori Noked; and Knesset member Einat Wilf – will join Barak in the new faction.
  • Barak and his supporters will remain in the government, but the remaining Labour ministers are resigning their posts and leaving the government.

 Why has Labour split?

  • The party has for some time been internally divided about its place in PM Netanyahu’s government. Since joining the coalition in 2009, Barak has consistently argued that the party could use its position to help promote the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
  • However, the lack of progress in the peace process has damaged the standing of Labour and Barak personally. Having achieved its worst-ever result in the 2009 elections with 13 seats, the party has sunk further in opinion polls since then. Recent polls indicate that were an election held today, it would win as few as seven seats.
  • The last few weeks have seen growing instability in the Israeli political scene, and escalating rhetoric between different factions within the government.
  • Several Labour ministers, including Isaac Herzog, Avishai Braverman, and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, had threatened to pull Labour out of the government in recent weeks. Barak was expected to lose the leadership of the party before the next elections.
  • Therefore, Barak’s decision is a pre-emptive move to keep himself in the government.
  • In a written statement, the five members of Barak’s new faction harshly criticised the remaining eight for undermining the party, and for moving too far to the left.

 What is the future of the Israeli left?

  • Parties explicitly defining themselves as ‘left-wing’ have been in decline in Israel over the past ten years and show little sign of recovery. However, the principles of territorial compromise and the two-state solution which they advanced have gained acceptance across considerable parts of the Israeli political spectrum.
  • Whilst the idealism of the left-wing approach to the peace process has been undermined, so has the right-wing idealism of holding onto the whole ‘land of Israel.’ This has led to the growth of the centre in Israeli politics.
  • A rift on the Israeli right led to the split of the Likud in 2005. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left Likud to create the centrist Kadima party, along with former Labour leader and Oslo Accord architect Shimon Peres.
  • The key diplomatic policies which had been the preserve of the left-wing parties – including support for the two-state solution – are now also held by Kadima and by some parts of the right-of-centre Likud. Netanyahu, who was once the leading sceptic and opponent of a two-state solution, now accepts it.
  • The two-state formula is regarded by politicians from a wide political spectrum as essential for maintaining Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, as well as Israel’s international legitimacy.
  • Reflecting this, today sees the launch of the ‘two-state caucus’ in the Knesset, supported by leader of the centrist Kadima party, Tzipi Livni.
  • A majority of Israelis support the two-state principle, though many are sceptical about the possibility of implementing it. A public opinion survey conducted by the Geneva Initiative in December 2010 found that 54% of Israelis support an agreement along the lines of the unofficial Geneva Accords. Among Kadima voters, 68% support such an agreement, and 49% of Likud voters would do the same.

 What are the implications of today’s split for the Israeli government?

  • With the remaining eight members of the Labour party appearing to be in the process of leaving the government, PM Netanyahu is still left with a workable majority of 66 MKs in the 120-seat Knesset. Since several of those eight members frequently voted against the government in any case, this does not in itself create a dramatic change.
  • However, the split is likely to negatively impact both the domestic popularity and international standing of the government. PM Netanyahu worked hard to bring Labour into the coalition in order to position himself as a centrist leader and to balance the influence of his right-wing coalition partners.
  • Today’s development appears to increase the leverage of the right wing coalition parties, though Netanyahu has repeatedly stressed that he will not be restrained by his coalition partners from advancing the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, if the Palestinians meet his basic demands.

 What will happen next in the Labour party?

  • A leadership primary will now take place to elect a new leader for the party. Welfare minister Isaac Herzog and minorities minister Avishai Braverman have both declared themselves as candidates.
  • Four of the remaining eight Labour members, Eitan Cabel, Ghaleb Majadele, Daniel Ben Simon and Amir Peretz, may split off and form their own left-leaning faction.

 What explains Labour’s long-term decline?

  • The Labour party and its antecedents formed the dominant party in Israel from the state’s founding in 1948 until Labour’s dramatic defeat to the right-of-centre Likud in 1977. It was based on socialist principles and a pragmatic approach to diplomatic relations with Israel’s neighbours, emphasising security but also a willingness for territorial compromise. The party won elections with 44 seats under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992.
  • Since then, the party has been in decline for various reasons:
  • As elsewhere around the world, the traditional socialist principles that were dominant in Israel in the early years of the state became outmoded, and replaced with a greater emphasis on individualism and free market economics.
  • Israel underwent major demographic changes, resulting in Labour’s Ashkenazi (Jews of European origin) base losing its position of social and demographic dominance in the state.
  • The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 left the party without its most trusted leader, a gap it proved unable to fill.
  • The collapse of the Oslo process, championed by the Labour party in the 1990s, critically damaged the credibility of the party to manage the diplomatic process. Particularly damaging was Yasser Arafat’s rejection of Ehud Barak’s peace proposals in 2000 and the outbreak of the Second Intifada.
  • The rise of Kadima created an alternative to Labour that was better trusted by the public to advance the peace process whilst protecting Israel’s security interests.

Further Reading