Israeli politics will reap real benefit from Ehud Barak’s abandonment of Labor for Likud only if it is exploited for a genuine shake-up of the system. The Labor Party is now faced with two choices: It can declare itself to be on the auction block, up for sale in pieces, or it can mobilize with renewed vigor for the battle over its role in shaping the face of Israeli society.

This is not the first time the party has found itself at a turning point, but it is reasonable to assume that it will be the last: Another chance seems unlikely to present itself.

It is important to understand that Barak’s defection reflects Labor’s own nature and customs: In substance, it is not necessarily any different from the split initiated by David Ben-Gurion, or the subsequent flights of Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. There was no real reason to create the Rafi party other than Ben-Gurion’s hatred of his former colleagues and their revulsion at him, Dayan and Peres.

Moreover, the crises of the 1960s and 1970s, including Labor’s defeat in the 1977 elections, share a common denominator with the present crisis. The key question was and remains the same: For what purpose does the Labor Party exist?

Ever since it became clear that Mapai, Labor’s forerunner, had come to an end, and still existed only by virtue of its organizational framework and its control of the economy, this question has not had a real answer. Indeed, once the objective for which Mapai was established − leading the prestate Jewish community to the founding of the state − was achieved, and with masses of new immigrants having been brought here, it seemed as if the compass that ought to have guided the “workers’ party” had gone awry. The economic growth and accelerated development came at the expense of the weak, and there was no longer anyone who would think about the region’s future in a post-colonial era.

The last important thing that Ben-Gurion did was to equip Israel with nuclear capability ‏(as foreign publications say‏). Since then, the deterioration has continued, aside from a brief interlude during Yitzhak Rabin’s second government, and Israel has become the only Western country besides the United States that does not have a significant social democratic party.

The main reason for Mapai’s weakness toward its end, and of the Labor Party’s afterward, was, and still is, its lack of an intellectual infrastructure and its inability to stick to its principles.

Therefore, social democracy in Israel has to be invented from scratch. It must be based on three principles: nurturing genuine liberal democracy, as opposed to mere formal democracy; striving for social justice as the realization of human rights rather than as an expression of “compassion” on the part of the satiated; and an end to the war based on recognition of the finality of the situation in place at the conclusion of the War of Independence.

In a party of this kind, supporters and opponents of the settlements will not be able to dwell together. Nor will people who favor a totally deregulated economy be able to dwell together with those convinced that such a system is a recipe for disaster, or people who believe human rights must be stringently upheld with those who believe that Jews constitute an ethnic community with superior rights.

A ruling party is a party that has an ideology. Likud has been in power for generations by virtue and by dint of its ideology.

The right succeeded in convincing residents of remote neighborhoods in big cities and the country’s outlying areas of two things. The first was that they must forgo their economic and class interests in favor of the national interest, as the right defines it − holding onto the occupied territories. The second is that the existing social structure is the only possible kind, and that the same is true of the market economy.

From the point of view of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ilk, poverty is natural and exploitation has a substitute − ruling over the Arabs. This comprehensive worldview must be challenged by an alternative that is no less comprehensive: that we have created the world we now inhabit with our hands, and it is therefore up to us to change it.

The Labor Party has the right to exist only if it takes this difficult and complex mission on itself. Otherwise, it should say goodbye and depart the scene quietly.