Ehud Barak's bolt from the Labor Party in order to remain in the governing coalition has solidified his role as Benjamin Netanyahu's enabler. For two years, Barak has led the Labor Party to irrelevance while facilitating the right-wing policies of the government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Throughout this time, Barak said that his staying in the government was in the interests of national security. In truth, his position in the government has served to undermine Israel's national security. His latest move suggests that he will continue to do so. Far from supporting Israel's "Independence," as the name of Barak's new political movement suggests, the continued irresponsible behavior of Israel's Defense Minister will only further intensify Israel's isolation.
The assumption that Barak joined the governing coalition to moderate its policies has proven to be false. Upon joining the government in March 2009, Barak told his party, "I am not afraid of Binyamin Netanyahu. We will not serve as anyone's fig leaf. We will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after the State of Israel." If only this were true. Instead, Barak has been party to a government that has created friction with allies like Turkey and the US, become hostage to settlers and rightwing initiatives, pursued loyalty oaths to discredit Israeli Arabs and McCarthy-like witch-hunts of left-wing peace activists and humanitarian watchdog groups-all while the peace process has ground to a halt. The United States believed in Barak, but as Ha'aretz recently reported, it no longer does. One Israeli official told the newspaper that a U.S. official outlined the White House's frustration with Barak clearly. "The entire administration bet on Barak because he said he could nudge Netanyahu toward an agreement with the Palestinians, but he deceived us and led us down the garden path," the Israeli official paraphrased. "We lost our hope in this coalition. We simply have no more expectations." Instead of leaving the Netanyahu government on principle, based on its failed and even deranged policies, Barak has doubled-down, and the Israel-United States relationship is likely to suffer as a result.
Barak undermined the Labor party, brought it to its knees, and now, much to the relief of its remaining members, has left it. The founding party of Israel is merely a fragment of its former self-and it has Ehud Barak to blame. Since the collapse of the Oslo Accords at Camp David, Barak has been insistent that only he could bring Israel peace and security. But his delusions of grandeur have derailed a once strong and vibrant political party, and along with it, the influence of its political platform of peace with security. But as Labor members like Isaac Herzog, Benjamin Ben Eliezer and Avishay Braverman pick up the pieces of what remains of the Labor party, they can take solace in the fact that Barak will no longer have their party hostage in a government pursuing policies that are antithetical to their principles. "The Labor Party, which founded the State of Israel, got rid of the hump on its back," Herzog told reporters after Barak's move. "Ehud Barak's masked ball is over."
Barak has all along claimed that he serves as a shield of Israel's national security concerns. But Israel's security is more threatened today than ever before, and its relationships with allies frayed. Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, are flexing their muscles in southern Lebanon, Hamas remains a threat in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority is weakened in the West Bank by the ineffectual peace process, and the prospect for Israel-Syria peace remains remote amidst the outlandish comments and behavior of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Israel today is more isolated in the international community than at any time before, its ties in the United States-and even with the American Jewish community-are becoming strained. Is this Ehud Barak's idea of national security? All of these setbacks for the State of Israel can be attributed to Barak's enabling the Netanyahu government to avoid policies that would secure Israel's place among the international community, such as presenting a peace plan of its own. Instead of being ashamed, Barak remains in the limelight, and therefore he is proud. Only the people of Israel-and its allies-are the ones who are ashamed.
For the Palestinians, Barak's latest move is another blow to hopes that the once powerful Labor party might re-emerge as a partner for peace. Like the Americans, the Palestinians had hoped Ehud Barak would serve to moderate the far-right wing nature of Benjamin Netanyahu's government. Instead, Barak has split Labor and become part and parcel of the right-wing establishment. This will add greater fuel to the belief that the Palestinians have no partner on the Israeli side, intensifying the campaign to pass resolutions criticizing and isolating Israel at the United Nations, as well as gain recognition throughout the international community for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Rather than convincing the Palestinians that they have no choice but to deal with a stable (yet uncompromising right-wing) Israeli government, as many in the coalition have claimed, Barak's move will likely only nudge the Palestinians toward more unilateral tactics to achieve statehood.
Barak had a choice. He could have left the current government-as I and others have advocated-taking Labor's 13 seats out of the 74 seat coalition, leaving the government vulnerable to collapse. In the process, Israel's government would be comprised of exclusively right-wing members, many of whom are opposed to the concept of land for peace. Doing so would have demonstrated leadership and dedication to core principles-to doing all Israel can to promote peace while ensuring its security and the vibrancy of its democracy. These have been the espoused values of the Labor Party, to which Barak has subscribed since he entered politics in 1995. Taking Labor out of the government would have contrasted a weak, right-wing coalition with 61 seats with a centrist, peace-promoting opposition of 59 seats. But it would have also taken away Barak's belief in his own influence, making him simply part of the opposition led by Kadima's Tzipi Livni. Therefore, Barak did not make this choice. Instead of choosing what is best for the country, Barak, true to form, betrayed both his party and the nation and chose what is best for himself. It is a farce that in his statement announcing his new party Barak said, "The top priority [of this movement] will be first and foremost the state, then the party, and only at the end, us." Today, the new "Independence" party of five seats will remain a fig leaf for the coalition, now at 66 seats, while the remaining members of Labor will join the opposition. In some cases, Labor members may join Kadima. While the government is weaker in number, it has gained strength by removing the cloud that the grumblings within Labor had caused. Sadly, it may have also removed hope for turning the tide against the momentum pulling Israel into isolation.
Ehud Barak is now a national tragedy. A leader who once held such promise has now driven the founding party of the state into the ground. He has cast his lot with Benjamin Netanyahu and a right-wing government that has showed no interest in safeguarding the prospects for peace, nor the principles of Israel's democracy. After Barak's announcement, Netanyahu told reporters, "The whole world knows, and the Palestinians know, that this government will be around for the next few years and that it is with this government that they should negotiate for peace." If Barak can somehow bring this right-wing government to achieve this goal, his actions will be vindicated. But this time, nobody will be fooled into counting on him to provide principled and moral leadership.
*A version of this article was previously published in the Jerusalem Post on 1/21/11, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=204575