Remember the date: February 3, 2008. That is when the Labor Party took its big step toward a merger with Kadima. The ease with which Ehud Barak glossed over the Winograd Report does not only affect his political future. His alliance with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also brings Labor closer to Kadima.
By replacing Amir Peretz with Barak, as both Labor Party chairman and defense minister, Labor hoped to distance itself from the failures of the Second Lebanon War. But by deciding to remain in Olmert's government, Barak has erased that distance. From now on, Kadima and Labor will share the burden of the failures almost equally.
Barak attributed his decision to the situation in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Iran and the urgent need to rehabilitate the Israel Defense Forces. The peace process got bottom billing. But even those ministers who are known as his sworn loyalists do not believe that these are the real reasons. According to the polls, if elections were held today, Labor and Kadima together would receive half a dozen seats less than Likud - in the best-case scenario. These surveys show that Labor has lost all nine of the seats it gained in the polls after Barak replaced Peretz. In other words, the hope that Barak the defense minister would bolster the status of Barak the party chair had proven vain even before he reneged on his campaign promise to quit the government.
Nor is that all. In private conversations, some ministers - and not necessarily Barak's usual critics - said that if they had to choose between Olmert and Barak, they would prefer the former as prime minister. Some even hinted recently that if Barak had quit the government, they would not have gone with him. And when Kadima's senior ministers closed ranks behind Olmert, that eliminated any hope that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would pull Labor's chestnuts out of the fire by creating a new Kadima government minus Olmert.
With regard to substantive issues, what Barak termed "the challenges," Labor and Kadima will also have little trouble ironing out their microscopic differences. Any of the "challenges" Barak listed could also star in Kadima's platform - or in that of Likud or Yisrael Beiteinu. With the 2008 budget and the education strikes behind it, there are no socioeconomic crises on the coalition's horizon. And if Olmert insists on moving forward with what the defense establishment and the Foreign Ministry both term a "virtual" peace process, one can assume that Barak will not stand in his way. Perhaps the defense minister will even condescend to evacuate a few illegal settlement outposts - all, of course, in coordination with the Yesha Council of settlements.
MK Haim Ramon's vision of the "big bang" - a Labor-Kadima merger - now looks more realistic. But in order for the merged party not to wind up much smaller than its component parts, something much bigger than their shared failure in Lebanon will have to happen.
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