Opportunist Ehud Barak leaves Labor in pieces

Ehud Barak wanted to be the Labor Party leader in the worst way, and that’s just what he’s done. After twice taking it down the road to defeat — including a failed term as prime minister (1999-2001) — and turning Israel’s once dominant party into a weak also-ran, he pushed it off a cliff this week and left to form his own party.

A friend in Jerusalem e-mailed me as the news broke. “You can start saying Kaddish for Labor now,” he wrote.

Actually, it’s been on life support a long time. Barak just pulled the plug.

Once the party of the working classes, it had become a party of elitists as it watched Likud and even the ultra-Orthodox Shas fill that role.

The party that founded the state was struck a final blow by its own leader, who had secretly plotted its demise with Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It comes as little surprise to those who know Barak’s first loyalty is to Barak, not the party or anyone else.

All the blame for Labor’s demise can’t be put on Barak. The party of David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin has suffered from a string of weak, ineffectual leaders and lacked a clear message for voters. In the last election it came in fourth behind Likud, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu; today it is down to a mere eight seats and there’s no telling how many of those will stay.

The left has been unable to find a way to counter a right-wing prime minister and a coalition of even more extreme elements, although Barak initially claimed he brought Labor into the coalition for that purpose. The promise of giving Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition a small degree of balance never materialized.

Barak in recent months has faced increasing pressure to pull Labor out of Netanyahu’s dysfunctional right-wing government because of its failure to make progress on the peace process. The word from Washington was that the administration was furious with Barak for “deceiving” it about his clout in pushing Netanyahu toward peace, reported the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.

Furious or not, the Obama administration prefers dealing with Barak over Netanyahu, who has a history of meddling in American partisan politics and is not trusted at the upper levels of the Obama administration.

Barak is not only the defense minister but also Israel’s de facto foreign minister, because the man who

holds the title, Avigdor Lieberman, has been a disaster and largely sidelined by his old mentor, Netanyahu. With Labor out of the government, Lieberman is strengthened, because in a coalition that rules with only a five-seat majority (66 of 120), his 15 seats can hold the balance of power.

As demands within Labor to leave the government became louder because of the faltering peace process, Barak had to make a choice: leave the job he loved or the party he didn’t care much about. It was an easy decision.

Barak never really was a party man. The party had anxiously embraced him in the 1990s as Israel’s most decorated soldier in the hopes that he could lead it to ever-elusive victory. He was a loner, rarely if ever consulting his closest colleagues, even to the point that when he decided to dissolve his government and call for new elections in 2001, most Cabinet members and aides only learned about it from the media.

Barak convinced the Clinton administration to convene two peace summits for him — one with the Palestinians and the other with the Syrians. None of the three sides was really ready to close a deal, and the talks collapsed, setting back chances for peace on both tracks.

Barak may have sold out the party behind his colleagues’ backs, but Labor had long since lost sight of its historic social mission with unrealistic visions of how to negotiate peace with Israel’s hostile neighbors. The Palestinians are not ready to make peace with a Jewish state, and Netanyahu is not ready to give up settlements and territory to a Palestinian state.

A disingenuous Netanyahu is touting Barak’s move as advancing the peace process because it will remove any expectations of flexibility on his part.

But the opposite is closer to reality.

The party split removes any internal pressure on Netanyahu to produce an Israeli peace plan and to be more flexible in negotiations with the Palestinians — if both sides ever do decide to sit down to talk seriously. It’s hard to imagine the Palestinians taking this shift as a signal that it’s finally time for them to get serious about negotiating.

Netanyahu would not be disappointed to see the peace process collapse so long as he doesn’t get the blame. Barak got rid of kvetching colleagues who wanted him to live up to his vow to make a difference for peace, but the old soldier just surrendered any clout he may have had.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.

Douglas M. Bloomfield

Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.