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Stuck In The Middle

How the Likud-Labor alliance will alter the future of Israeli politics.

Now that the Labor Party has decided to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Israelis have begun debating whether the new coalition is a “right-wing government” supported by Labor, as its detractors believe, or a “unity government,” as its supporters insist. The answer to this question is not only relevant for how the government will approach pressing policy questions, but may also portend a significant realignment of the Israeli political landscape.

The fate of the Labor Party is the pivotal question in understanding the future of Israeli politics. A significant minority of the Labor Party voted last week against party leader Ehud Barak’s decision to join the coalition; they wanted him to follow the example of Netanyahu himself, who for years waited marginalized in the opposition before returning triumphantly to power last month. The flaw in this reasoning is that when Netanyahu was in the opposition, he was the leader of the opposition. Barak didn’t have such luxury, since Kadima had already made the decision to remain in the opposition, relegating Barak to a secondary role. Barak had to choose between being second-in-command in the opposition, or be second-in-command in the coalition--a dilemma much different than the one Netanyahu faced three years ago.

But Barak does not seem to have made this decision for the sake of saving the party. He might have been thinking that Labor is doomed for a long, ugly death anyway, or he might have just preferred the certainty of the present (government office) over the unknown of the days to come (opposition and unlikely return to power). Never a sentimentalist, he seems unconcerned if the Labor Party loses its reason or its followers in this process. The larger question is how Labor’s future will affect the Israeli politics.

Sharon’s forming of Kadima in 2005 was Israel’s political “big bang”--a term popularized by one of Sharon’s more leftist accomplices, Minister Haim Ramon, who left Labor to join the new triumphant order. Israel supposedly moved from a two-major-party system--the battle for superiority between Likud and Labor--to a three-way battle between Likud on the right, Kadima in the center, and Labor on the left. Sharon’s plan was masterfully crafted: With Kadima in the middle, it would always have the better chance of being the ruling party by allying with the major party at either flank.

But the reshuffling that began with Sharon’s move now continues with Barak’s shift. Suddenly, it is not at all clear who’s the centrist and who’s the leftist. Has Labor, by joining Likud, moved to the right, leaving Kadima on the left, and occupying the ideal centrist terrain Sharon envisioned for his party? If that’s the case, Barak’s move will be judged as one of his most brilliant political maneuvers (in a career full of them), perhaps saving himself and his party at the same time. Netanyahu and Barak both seemed to assume that Kadima--with its short history, relatively inexperienced leader, and no detectable, distinguishable ideology--won’t be able survive years in the opposition. When they originally thought about joining forces, way ahead of recent elections, they both appeared content to let Kadima crumble, and then return to the era of Likud and Labor at the top of Israel’s political hierarchy.

This Likud-Labor alliance may in fact end the three-way post-Kadima political dynamic. The irony, however, is that Labor may be the odd man out. By joining Netanyahu, Barak may have solidified his party’s descent into irrelevance by sacrificing its leftist ideals, giving Kadima the second seat in Israel’s bipolar order that Labor formerly occupied. It should also be noted that the other half of dynamic is not safe either: The success of Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu, for example, should not be seen as a one-off fluke--it could potentially gain enough support to threaten Likud on the right in a way similar to Kadima’s current battle with Labor.

So regardless of whether Barak’s move turns out to be prescient or folly, it will likely bring Israel back to traditional two-party system. Not a bad outcome for a system with already too many parties and complications.

Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv based columnist, blogs daily at Rosner’s Domain.

By Shmuel Rosner