Ehud Barak Emil Salman 17.1.2011
Defense Minister Ehud Barak Photo by Emil Salman
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Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak stunned Israeli politics yesterday by announcing that he and four other MKs were leaving Labor to set up a new party, Atzmaut.

Twenty-two months of incessant, bitter fighting among Labor's 13 MKs over Barak's decision to join the Netanyahu government finally ended in divorce - but not necessarily the one everyone had expected.

Barak and his followers - Shalom Simhon, Matan Vilnai, Orit Noked and Einat Wilf - swore allegiance to the government and received a fistful of jobs. Labor's three other ministers, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Avishay Braverman, were forced to resign, and must now either keep feuding with Labor's other five MKs or arrange another divorce.

The Labor Party's future looked gloomy last night, but it wasn't too bright before the split, either. After going through seven leaders and losing dozens of Knesset seats over the last two decades, it has reached the moment of truth. The coming weeks will show whether it is at the end of the road or still has something to contribute to Israeli politics.

The maneuver Barak pulled on his colleagues yesterday was brilliant, but also filthy - the kind of maneuver that makes people loathe politics. He compared himself to David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon, all of whom abandoned their parties, but in truth, the differences outweigh the similarities.

One person he didn't mention was Moshe Dayan, who, admittedly, was not a party leader when he quit Labor's precursor, the Alignment, in 1977 to join a Likud-led government as foreign minister. Dayan was viewed at the time as a shameless deserter. But when his role in making peace with Egypt became clear, the public's view of him changed.

Barak's narrative yesterday, and indeed ever since he joined the government in 2009, was similar: He is there to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make peace.

He didn't plan to run for reelection as head of Labor in any case, knowing his chances of winning were slim, but he also didn't want to be the person who buried the party. Yesterday's maneuver achieved both goals.

Netanyahu looked smugger than ever yesterday. His coalition has just fallen from 74 to 66 MKs, but the real danger - that the entire Labor Party would quit in March, sparking early elections - has been averted. Just as they did after the 2009 elections, the two old buddies from the army's Sayeret Matkal unit have proved that they know how to concoct a political deal, keep it secret and carry it out. Imagine where Israel would be now if they could only do the same with a peace deal.

As for Barak, he was celebrating. In one fell swoop, he managed to save himself from de facto ouster at Labor's upcoming convention, keep himself in the Defense Ministry for a stretch and reward the loyalists whose political future, without exception, is now behind them. Perhaps sweetest of all, he is repaying his opponents in spades. For that alone, it would have been worth it.

For months now, Braverman, Herzog and Ben-Eliezer have been grumbling and threatening to quit "if the peace process doesn't resume," criticizing Barak and Netanyahu and trying to create the impression that they hold the key. And now, Barak comes along and pulls the rug out from under their feet.

Both Herzog and Braverman see themselves as Labor's future leader, yet they weren't wise enough, or brave enough, to show leadership by resigning of their own accord. And Ben-Eliezer, who believes nothing happens in Labor without his say, was caught with his pants down. Yesterday, he sounded like he couldn't believe his own words as he admitted, "I didn't know about this; I had no idea."

Barak told his associates yesterday that he feels "relieved." He said he decided on the split when he realized that the Labor convention could not be postponed beyond February or March, and would inevitably force him to resign. Then the whole world would know the Netanyahu government was on its last legs, and any chance of restarting talks with the Palestinians would be gone.

I decided I wouldn't play games in which the players deal not with what's important for the state, but with how they look, Barak said. Some of us have gotten their priorities screwed up, and I have trouble working with people like that. We've been in the government less than two years, and they already want to leave. It's not time for that yet.

Barak added that he doesn't want to be another Meir Amit, who quit Menachem Begin's government over the lack of diplomatic progress shortly before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Jerusalem.

Now Barak will no longer have to sit in faction meetings and have criticism heaped on his head. At Atzmaut's faction meetings, everyone will speak with one voice - Barak's. This is a one-term party - or more accurately, half a term. Indeed, two of its members, Vilnai and Simhon, were vying not long ago to head the Jewish National Fund.

Yesterday's maneuver won't win Barak any points with the Israeli public, but his image here is already at rock bottom anyway. What remains to be seen is the impact on his image as Israel's "de facto foreign minister" overseas. One can confidently predict that world leaders won't be applauding. He portrayed himself as a moderate voice in Netanyahu's ear, but in practice, he bolstered the government's most right-wing elements.

Moreover, when he headed a 13-member faction in a 74-member coalition, he was seen as someone Netanyahu couldn't do without, and who therefore had the power to push the prime minister toward peace.

That is no longer true. With his own hands, he has made the government a more extremist right-wing one in which Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will have even more power. It's no surprise that the latter was grinning from ear to ear yesterday, telling all and sundry that "the main goal has been achieved."

"True, it's ugly politics," Vilnai admitted yesterday. "But there's no choice. We did it because it was impossible to live with this faction any longer. I believe the only ones who can make peace are Netanyahu and Barak. One more push is needed for this to happen, and we'll give Netanyahu that push."