Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem
In a dramatic though not entirely unexpected step, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the Israeli Labour Party, decided this week to leave the party, along with three others of his colleagues, effectively condemning the party to irrelevance.
The socialist-Zionist party that ruled Israel, especially during its formative years up until 1977, had been in a state of disarray for a long time, with several key party leaders accusing Barak of destroying the party by succumbing to the rightwing agenda of the current Israeli government.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu seemed quite pleased with the rupture, saying it ensured that his government would live for a long time to come.
Barak's decision to leave the Labour Party and set up his own faction leaves the embattled party with only eight seats in the Knesset. Three cabinet ministers affiliated with Labour quit their portfolios, saying they will devote themselves "to rebuilding the party and restoring its former glory".
Barak had been facing significant challenges from members demanding his ouster, citing "his absolute humiliating subservience" to the rightwing government. Hence Barak's departure can be viewed as a sort of pre-emptive action against his critics -- an action that critics say contains clear elements of conspiracy and vindictiveness.
His former colleagues in the party accused Barak of betraying the Labour movement, of self-centeredness, and spitefulness. "Barak brought tragedy to the Labour Party, sullied it and broke it apart," said Labour MK Shelly Yachimovich, lambasting Barak for the "corrupt and opportunist" way in which he chose to split from the party.
Another party leader, Eitan Cabel, described Barak's coup as proof that "these people have destroyed the Labour party and that they must ask me and my colleagues for forgiveness."
Meanwhile, the remaining "Labourites" are trying to put the best possible face on the situation. Veteran Labour leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said the party would eventually overcome its ordeal: "Labour has had its ups and downs, and I have no doubt that Labour will return to what it once was."
Ben-Eliezer said he would do whatever was necessary to help rehabilitate the party. He is likely to become temporary chairman of the dwindling party until a race is held to succeed Barak.
Another Barak critic, Minorities Affairs Minister Avishay Baverman said the party would seize on the opportunity left by Barak's departure: "In every crisis there is opportunity.
The main problem of the Labour Party is that it didn't stand up for its ideals. Barak decided to support Likud and [Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, instead of fighting for the values of Labour. Sharon left Likud to advance peace. Barak is splitting from Labour to be a second rate Likudnik at best and another Lieberman at worst."
Although Barak's desertion from the party is unlikely to have immediate political ramifications in Israel, the dramatic split in what once was the ultimate left Zionist party will boost the confidence of the Netanyahu government.
Netanyahu claimed that the Labour split would help the cause of peace with the Palestinians. The hawkish Israeli premier suggested that the blow would make the Palestinians understand that the Israeli government will not collapse anytime soon, and that they will have no choice but to submit to Israel's conditions.
"The Palestinians saw the threats of the Labour ministers and toughened their stance because they thought the Israeli government was about to collapse. Now they understand the government is going nowhere and they will return to negotiations."
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted a senior Israeli official, who had been involved in negotiating with the Palestinians for 15 years, as saying: "if officials in the prime minister's bureau think that this is the way to advance the peace process then they are disconnected from reality."
Netanyahu has been offering the weak Palestinian Authority a small and deformed state, leaving much of the West Bank -- including virtually all of occupied East Jerusalem -- in Israeli hands. Most Palestinians, including Fatah, the party of Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, view such a settlement as the liquidation of the Palestinian national cause and inalienable Palestinian rights.
It is uncertain what road the new Barak faction, called "Independence", will travel. According to a quick poll carried out by the Panels polling institute for the Knesset Channel, three per cent of the Israeli public said they would vote for Barak's party.
Barak said the faction would be centrist and Zionist. However, there is little doubt that should Barak maintain his stamp and hegemony on the new party, it would have either of two choices: joining the effectively neo-fascist right-wing camp, or dying down as an opportunistic group unaccepted by authentic right-wingers and rejected by an embittered and betrayed mother party.
There is no doubt that the Israeli leftist camp is going through difficult times, not only because of the blow that has been dealt to the Labour Party. Israeli society itself has been drifting towards extreme nationalism, in both its religious and secular forms. Jingoism, chauvinism, anti- internationalism, xenophobia, and plain racism already have deep roots in Israel. One Israeli cabinet minister declared recently: "We are already a fascist state."
Hence, with or without the rupture of the Labour Party, Israel was already charting a dangerous course. A few days ago, an Israeli journal quoted several prominent rabbis as calling for creating concentration camps for the Palestinians. The Nazi-minded rabbis, who included the rabbi of Safad, Shlomo Eliahu, said in their "advisory opinion" that it was the duty of all devout Jews to help send Palestinians to the ovens.
The edict issued said the Bible called on all Jews to annihilate the Palestinians. The manifestly criminal call was scantily covered by the media and generated negligible reactions from Israeli society.
A few weeks ago, the spiritual mentor of the Shas fundamentalist party, Ovadia Yosef, said during a Sabbath homily that all non-Jews were effectively donkeys -- animals of burden created by the Almighty in human shape only in deference to Jews. Yosef has hundreds of thousands of loyalists and followers ready and willing to carry out his instructions to the letter.
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