Second Fiddle Won't Play

The reason for Labor?s collapse is the handful of politicians who sold out the soul of a ruling party for power.

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In January 2003, when Labor dropped from 26 Knesset seats to only 19, party politicos put the blame on the charisma (or lack thereof) of its then-chairman, Amram Mitzna. When the results were just as disappointing in March 2006, they said choosing Amir Peretz as the party?s leader was a mistake.

Now, when the polls predict that Labor, Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu will be in a tight race for third place in the elections, Ehud Barak is getting a turn as scapegoat. Everyone is taking the easy way out, looking for the easy answer under the bright lights of the Akirov Towers. That's much easier than searching for the answer on the dark roads where the Labor Party leadership has taken the party for the last seven years.

Since Barak was routed in the February 2001 elections, Labor has established its role as surplus baggage in governments led by its rivals. This arrangement is mistakenly termed a national unity government. Ariel Sharon wanted to kill off the Palestinian Authority, then-defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer carried out the orders, and then-foreign minister Shimon Peres explained it. Sharon wanted to hand over Gush Katif to Hamas, Labor joined in and shut up. Ehud Olmert promised "a unilateral convergence" from the West Bank, and the Labor Party swallowed it. Olmert changed his mind and invited Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate on a final-status agreement. So what? The housing minister signed off on tenders for new construction in the settlements. No big deal.

The assumption that a broad coalition government, an "emergency government," is the correct formula for advancing far-reaching political and military developments has been refuted time after time: Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt, and Labor supported it from outside the government. Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords, despite the Likud's opposition from outside the government. When the Likud government sent the IDF into the Lebanon War, Labor gave its support from the opposition. At the start of the second intifada, the roles were reversed.

Barak reached unprecedented understandings with the Palestinians, and with the Syrians, without the need for right-wing support, but failed because he had cold feet, among other reasons. If Benjamin Netanyahu presents the Knesset with a permanent agreement with the Palestinians and a peace treaty with the Syrians, MK Yuli Tamir, from the opposition, will wholeheartedly vote in favor. If the United States gives its blessing for an Israeli attack on Iran, Barak will support the move even if he is no longer in the Defense Ministry.

The assumption that adopting a security-oriented platform is the key for Labor to occupy the Prime Minister's Office was proven false 20 years ago. Even for Rabin, the title of defense minister did not help him reach power. After four years of the defense job in the rotation governments of Peres and Yitzhak Shamir from 1984 to 1988, the Likud won the next elections, and Labor returned to play second fiddle in the cabinet.In 1992, two years after Labor quit the coalition, Rabin returned his party to power from the opposition benches.

Even its second comeback, in May 1999, was made from the opposition, and not from a rear position in the cabinet. If Barak had been willing to run in those elections as defense minister in the Netanyahu government, instead of presenting a new message, it is likely that the Likud would have remained in power. The public does not like parties that are only crutches. Anyone pleased with the government will vote for the governing party. Whoever is disappointed with government votes for the opposition.Whoever views the Palestinians as partners in peace, and thinks the time has come to dismantle the illegal outposts, will vote for a Kadima headed by Tzipi Livni. Whoever believes in the status quo and supports the settlements will vote for the Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, or a Kadima led by Shaul Mofaz.

What unique political platform will Barak's Labor Party offer? What accomplishments can its ministers present in the areas of the economy and welfare, rule of law or improvements in health and education? Kadima will take any achievements for itself. The failures, and in particular those of the Second Lebanon War, will stick to everyone.

It is true that Barak's hedonism has alienated voters and done Labor no good, but that is not enough to explain its collapse. Netanyahu promises the Likud a flood of Knesset seats, even if he is not considered the national modesty champion either.

The reason for Labor's collapse is the handful of politicians who sold out the soul of a ruling party for power. The party leadership has relinquished leading the country and is satisfied with the trappings of power. The fish stinks, and Israeli society has to eat it.