Amir Peretz, one of the four rebels
Amir Peretz, one of the four rebelsIsrael news photo (file)

Four Labor MKs who object to the party leadership of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and especially to the party’s membership in the coalition, are considering asking for official “permission” to quit.

The four are MKs Eitan Cabel, Yuli Tamir, Ophir Pines-Paz, and Amir Peretz. A fifth MK, Shelly Yechimovitch, agrees with the four ideologically, but is not currently considering leave the party.

The conflicts between the sides came to a head this week with the Central Committee vote to approve the party’s new constitution. Although last-minute compromises assured the support of party bigwigs and Cabinet ministers Yitzchak Herzog and Avishai Braverman, the four “rebels” feel that the new constitution gives Barak far too much power.

Pines-Paz has called Barak a “dictator,” and Cabel said that the party “has lost its way.”  Tamir, a former Peace Now founder whom Barak personally brought into the party ten years ago amidst great fanfare, said, “It is not clear which public the party will serve until 2012 [when the new constitution says party primaries will be held – ed.]… We four will continue to act independently as we have done until now.”

Objections to Coalition Membership

The internal opposition began shortly after the elections when Barak showed interest in joining the Likud-Lieberman-Shas government coalition. Many MKs said this would lead to an erosion of the party’s long-held ideological positions. Former party bigwig Moshe Shachal wrote in the Thursday edition of Yediot Acharonot, “The true Labor Party must sound its loud and clear voice against the reactionary right wing and place itself as a sane, democratic and liberal alternative… The assumption that Labor can influence from within is nothing more than an illusion” – though Shachal did not explain why this is so; many right-wing government supporters feel that Labor’s influence in the government, especially regarding the construction of settlement and the removal of settlers and checkpoints in Judea and Samaria, is disproportionately large.

Left-wing commentator Amnon Abramovitch jumped on the anti-Barak bandwagon to bash him for his "poor" performance as Defense Minister – in that he has failed to remove enough “illegal" outposts. “He has been Defense Minister for two and a quarter years," Abramovitch wrote, “and has not removed even one illegal outpost.”

Abramovitch begrudgingly “credited” Barak with removing the Jews from Peace House in Hevron, but failed to note Barak’s military accomplishments during Operation Cast Lead and others as measures of his performance as Defense Minister.

Barak Threatens the Four

Following the party vote on the constitution, Barak threatened that MKs who do not follow the party line will find themselves with reduced Knesset speaking privileges and the like, in accordance with new party rules that he wishes to institute.

Because they do not number a third of the 13-MK Labor Knesset faction, the four cannot split off from the party unilaterally. They will convene early next week, and are considering asking Barak to allow them to split off “by agreement.”

Barak, for his part, has all but called on them to leave. “If they have lost their faith in the leadership, they are welcome to leave,” he said Thursday morning, “though it would be more proper for them to return their mandates” – meaning they should resign from the Knesset and thus enable other Labor MKs to take their place. This is unlikely, however, and Labor is expected to shrink from 13 to 9 MKs, making it the Knesset’s 5th largest party. Kadima has 28 MKs, Likud – 27, Israel Our Home – 15, and Shas has 11.

Historic Labor

The Israel Labor party is the continuation of what was Israel’s dominant party during the country’s first 30 years, and the second-most dominant party for the next 30 years. It has seen its Knesset representation shrink from 51 seats in the 1973 elections, to 34 in 1996, then 26 and 19 seats in the following elections, and finally 13 in this year’s elections.

Labor has also gone through six different party leaders since the death of Yitzchak Rabin in 1995: Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak (twice), Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Amram Mitzna, and Amir Peretz. The Likud, in contrast, has been headed only by Binyamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, and Netanyahu again since 1995.