Paul Pillar

Israel Slides Farther to the Right

Ehud Barak’s break from Israel’s Labor Party, taking several other ministers with him to establish a new party called Independence, is to be mourned on several counts. Barak acted in connivance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who rewarded the breakaway ex-Laborites with ministerial positions, including Barak retaining his job as defense minister. The once-proud Labor Party—a party descended from Israel’s founding fathers, the party of David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin—has been reduced to single-digit representation in the Knesset.

Those identifying with Labor or with the overall Israeli left understandably feel betrayed. Ari Shavit in Ha’aretz says that unless Barak quickly demonstrates otherwise, he will be perceived as a “good-for-nothing opportunist” who “will be remembered as the captain of Labor who, instead of leading his ship to safe havens, opted to crash it into the reef and abandon it.” Shavit adds his own opinion that Barak “has a warped personality and value system” and is “not loyal to people and doesn’t comprehend the democratic process.”

That last observation appropriately goes beyond the fortunes of the Labor Party to the health of Israeli democracy. Barak’s move impairs that health. It moves Israeli politics even farther away than it already was from a vibrant and competitive dialogue between left and right. It locks in the dominance of a viewpoint that, although manifested in some different flavors represented by what are now the largest parties, is fundamentally the viewpoint of Likud and the right. Daniel Levy is correct that what Barak did is a “deeply undemocratic act.”

With Labor now out of government, the hope for any Israeli diplomacy with a chance of moving toward a settlement of differences with the Palestinians is now even dimmer than when I observed two months ago that regime change in Israel may be needed for hopes to brighten. Barak’s action is a change of sorts, but clearly in the wrong direction. The principal threat Netanyahu faces of a withdrawal of support is not that of Labor ministers unhappy about the lack of progress toward peace. It is that of Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, which will oppose any of the sorts of concessions regarding Israeli settlements and East Jerusalem necessary to get the peace process off the ground. Everyone interested in peace in the Middle East ought to be unhappy about this.

Everyone interested in Israel’s long-term status as a state that is Jewish as well as democratic also ought to be unhappy. The further entrenchment of a viewpoint that pushes Israel farther, with no politically promising exit ramp in sight, down the path of indefinite, embattled control of a subjugated Palestinian population is a tragedy for Israel as well as for the Palestinians.

It will be very tempting for outsiders, including the United States, to quietly back away from this more-unpromising-than-ever situation. The Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reports that “senior sources in Washington” say President Obama intends to distance himself from the indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks and to leave things to Dennis Ross and George Mitchell. The U.S. objective would be just “maintenance of the conflict, in the hope that things will not spin out of control.” Conflict maintenance is not enough. The same reasons that existed earlier for an active, committed U.S. role on behalf of an Israel-Palestinian settlement exist today, notwithstanding Ehud Barak’s opportunist action.