I saw this morning that former Prime Minister and present Defense Minister Ehud Barak, chairman of the Israel Labor Party, announced that he was quiting the party along with four other MKs to form a new faction known as Atzmaut or "Independence." This leaves the Labor Party with only eight MKs, its smallest caucus ever, and leaves Prime Minister Netanyahu with a smaller majority of 66 rather than 74. But it will be a more dependable and coherent coalition without Labor. And it leaves him with Barak, who since the government was formed as acted as its de facto foreign minister at least to the West. Barak is fulfilling the same function today that Moshe Dayan did for Menahem Begin's first Likud government in 1977-80 and that Shimon Peres did for Sharon's government after 2001.
I would argue that this is the most serious split in the history of Mapai/Labor. It is without a doubt the most serious split since former Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin formed the Democratic Movement for Change, known in Hebrew as Dash, in 1976 out of a number of former generals and personalities associated with the Labor Party and with the Free Center Party of the Right. But it is as least as serious as the Rafi split from Mapai in 1965 when former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, former Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres split off to form an independent list. This was largely about Ben-Gurion's need to spite the Old Guard of Mapai. Dayan, Peres and most of Rafi rejoined with Mapai and Ahdut Ha'Avoda to form the Labor Party three years later in 1968. Rafi never really established an independent infrastructure. Barak's split is likely to be more permanent. It may be as serious as the Faction B split from Mapai in 1944 that eventually led to the creation of the Ahdut Ha'Avoda (ironically it means the Unity of Labor) party a decade later.
Labor has been ailing for decades. First, its 29 years of continuous rule as Mapai/Labor from 1948 to 1977 led to its replacement by the Likud after several corruption scandals were exposed in the year before the election. Then its lack of a real serious policy on the Arab question led it to remain in the political wilderness until 1984, when it was forced to form a National Unity Government with the Likud. Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres remained locked in a bitter 20-year personal feud from 1974 to 1993, which they had inherited from their mentors, Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan, a few years before. Labor has been riven with major factional and personality splits since before its foundation. First there was the Tzeirim ("youngsters") versus the Old Guard within Mapai in the early 1960s. Then came Allon versus Dayan after Dayan was selected as defense minister over the more worthy Allon in June 1967 with outside support. Then Rabin and Peres took over the feud. Then Rabin agreed to the electoral "reform" of 1992 that gave all Israeli citizens a double vote. This severely weakened the dominance of the Israeli party system by the two major parties.
Labor has suffered from three main weaknesses that have killed other major parties in settler societies. First, Labor has over relied on former generals to provide it with electoral charisma at the expense of policy development. This trend began with Moshe Dayan back in 1959. It accelerated when the Labor Party was formed because Ahdut Ha'Avoda was basically a paramilitary party for the old Palmakh/Hagana leadership. After Rabin joined the party as ambassador to the U.S. there was a flood of former generals joining. Of all these generals four have stood out: Dayan, Allon, Rabin, and Barak.
Two foreign parties have relied on generals for electoral charisma: the American Whigs and the South African South Africa Party. The Whigs had three former generals in their stable. The first two, William H. Harrison and Zachary Taylor, were talented politicians. The third, Winfield Scott, was by far the best general but an incompetent candidate. He ran as the party's nominee in 1852 as the sectional split between North and South was beginning to split the party. He lost and two years later the party split on sectional lines without ever again running an independent candidate for president.
The South Africa Party was dominated by former Boer generals in the decade of 1910 to 1920. But after the National Party was formed in 1913 and SAP leader Louis Botha died of illness in 1919, the party was left with only a single general, Jan Smuts. Smuts led the party for thirty-one years and there was no satisfactory replacement for him. The party never developed a viable policy on the race question that could compete with the National Party's slogan of apartheid. The party, as the United Party after 1934, became a "me-too party" in opposition with too much stress on the word loyal in loyal opposition.
Second, related to the first was the party's domination by Peres and Rabin for two decades. Many talented potential leaders ended up either quitting politics altogether or defecting to the liberal Meretz party. What began as a trickle of talent in the early 1970s with Shulamit Aloni became a torrent by the 1990s. Then in 1995 Rabin was assassinated and Peres took over and lost another election. Peres had been regularly losing elections since 1974 because of his image as an unscrupulous schemer and a visionary dreamer who was naive. Barak temporarily changed this dynamic but he dropped out of politics, temporarily, after the failure of his premiership in 2000.
Third, because of Arafat's resort to violence with the Al-Aksa Intifada in October 2000, Labor was seen as a party that had naively trusted terrorists. The Ulster Unionist Party in Northern Ireland suffered from this same image after the IRA refused to disarm in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement. By the time the IRA finally disarmed in 2005 the UUP had been electorally broken and replaced by the DUP as the main unionist party. The UUP went from ten MPs in the late 1990s to none today largely because of this.
In the mid-2000s it seemed possible, at least to this observer, that the Israeli Center-Left might resurrect itself through a merger of Meretz with Labor and a concentration on domestic policy. This was a successful formula in 1854 when the antislavery Free Soil Party merged with the Northern Whigs to form the Republican Party. The Republicans then spent the next six years attracting antislavery Democrats and Americans (from the nativist Know Nothings) to become the dominant regional party in the North. In 1860 they won a presidential election by running a centrist from a battleground state and focusing on a few battleground states that the party lost in 1856. But it now appears that the rot has set in too far for this simple merger to work. Plus, the anti-Barak faction that remains in Labor is hopelessly divided among several different wannabe leaders.
Israel needs a new Center-Left party that will concentrate on domestic matters while having an openness to negotiate with the Arabs under certain conditions. If the party appears too eager to negotiate it will fall into the same trap that Labor and Meretz fell into. Maybe Kadima can fill that role?