The shame of Ehud Barak

The Israeli Labour Party has been destroyed by an opportunistic leader

Just before April Fools’ Day dawned, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu took three hours to swear in his bloated government, which is so big that carpenters have had to enlarge the cabinet table at the Knesset.

In the first opinion poll that followed, only a third of the population expressed confidence in the new rulers, a mere seven weeks after electing them. There are grave doubts about an unknown politician (Yuval Steinitz) being made finance minister in the middle of a recession, and concern that Netanyahu has already made up his mind to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, or so it is said.

Those of us who think that would be a very bad idea believe that Bibi expects support for a strike from his defence minister, Ehud Barak, architect of the Gaza attacks and leader of the Labour Party; and he will probably get it. In all the cynical and opportunistic horse-trading that preceded the formation of Bibi’s rickety coalition and unpopular government, none was more shameless than the conduct of Barak. His ambition will cost his party dear.

The country where I was born and grew up was itself born with a built-in left-of-centre government that lasted for 30 years. David Ben-Gurion, who led Israel to independence, was Mapai (the Israeli Workers’ Party) and the party was him, down to his khaki shorts. Over his time as prime minister (1948-63, with a break of two years) he formed many coalitions, but his unbreakable rule was “Without the right and without the communists”.

His brand of socialism, which continued in the Labour Party that brought together Mapai and other groups in 1968, was, however, so mild and centrist that when I came to London in 1972 the real ideological confrontation of the miners’ strike and a “Who Governs Britain?” crisis was a revelation.

Yet, watered-down and mellow as it may have been, Labour reigned supreme in Israel until 1977. Since then it has returned to government, alternating with Likud, the main party of the right. For the next 33 years, the one immovable element of Israeli politics held firm: Labour and Likud were implacable opponents.

Labour’s decision, after a close vote, to join a Likud-led government in return for a ludicrously large number of cabinet seats would have appalled Ben-Gurion. The party has already been reduced to its smallest ever number of seats in the Knesset, but several of the remaining 13 MKs feel so strongly about the issue that the group may yet split. Either way, this party is well and truly over.

For Barak to prop up a Bibi government is bad enough. But sharing the cabinet table with the openly Arab-bashing Avigdor Lieberman, whose extreme-right Yisrael Beiteinu

(“Israeli Home”) party won two seats more than Labour, is a recipe for suicide. Labour’s national committee may accept it, but its voters won’t, and they won’t be fooled again.

The government sworn in by Bibi on 31 March consists of Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Labour and the uncompromising, ultra-Orthodox Shas. Shamefully, Lieberman, a thuggish former nightclub bouncer from Moldavia who is under investigation for grave financial misconduct, is now the country’s face to the world as foreign minister. Hours into his new job, he announced that “if you want peace – prepare for war”, presumably on the premise that while the guns are roaring, police inquiries can be stalled. Propping up such a belligerent government, one that has already denounced the Annapolis accords, George Bush’s last, stuttering attempt to pursue a two-state solution that was agreed less than two years ago, is not what Labour supporters thought they were voting for on 10 February.

Can you remember that far back? Can you remember a woman called Tzipi Livni, who declared victory because her centre-right Kadima party, which broke off from Likud only a few years ago, won 28 seats in the 120-strong Knesset, one more than Likud managed?

Had Bibi and Livni been able to find enough common ground to join forces in a government of national unity, the option favoured by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, they would have needed only a handful of other MKs to give them the majority of 61 needed to rule. This was the dream ticket, but it would have required genuine power-sharing, with a legally defined rotation of the prime ministership between two equal party leaders, and a joint policy framework, however loose.

Both issues proved insurmountable hurdles. Bibi, as arrogant and smug as when he lost the election in 1999, would not contemplate any rotation. Joining him without it would have put Mrs Clean at risk of becoming a Tsvangirai to his Mugabe, while also betraying the large number who voted for Kadima because they saw it as the only way to prevent a Bibi comeback.

Livni now claims to be as enthusiastic about leading a vigorous opposition to the Bibi regime as she was about forming a government herself a few short weeks ago. She has a point. The kind of administration Bibi now heads is bound to collapse amid bad-tempered public wrangling between its ill-suited components. No one else will be able to form a viable coalition, either, so I predict yet another premature election.

Given the disgraceful conduct of its leader, there is every possibility that Labour will be annihilated altogether next time. Its supporters will opt either for the fringe-left parties or – far more likely – for Livni’s Kadima, which now looks like the only viable moderate option. How paradoxical that, just as Barack Obama seems to be burying the neocons and resurrecting the American left, another Barak is signing Labour’s death warrant in Israel.

Mira Bar-Hillel writes for the London Evening Standard