Ehud Barak has ended his days as an independent politician, the peace process is officially over, and the fate of Netanyahu’s government is now at the hands of Israel Beitenu’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman. A few notes following the political earthquake at the Knesset today
1. Ehud Barak. The former leader of Labor effectively joined the Likud today. He did register a new party called Atzmaut (Hebrew for “independence”) but nobody seriously thinks that Barak and the four backbenchers who left Labor with him would run on their own in the next elections. Barak is not a good campaigner, and even if he was, his public image is in an all-time low. Most pundits estimate that Barak already has a promise from Netnayhu to continue serving as Defense Minister if the Likud wins elections again. Whether or not it’s true, this is the end of the road for Ehud Barak as an independent politician; from now on, his political fate is at the hands of Netanyahu.
2. Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is seen by some as the day’s winner, but in fact, all he did was cut his losses. Netanyahu needed Labor in his government to balance its rightwing elements and most notably, Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu. Recently, the PM reached the conclusion that Labor won’t last in his coalition much longer, so he decided to keep a minimum of loyal supporters and not lose the entire party. Instead of the 13 seats Labor held (out of which 8-9 were loyal to the coalition), Netanyahu was left with five. Not enough to match Lieberman’s 15, but still, better than nothing.
Netanyahu will enjoy a more stable coalition now. Together with Barak and his 5 Knesset Members, he has 66 MKs behind him, and four more members of the radical rightwing Ihud Leumi party that could be made part of the government in case of political troubles. As long as Lieberman and his 15 votes are with him, Netanyahu is safe.
3. Avigdor Lieberman is now the strongest politician in Israel. He holds what was the traditional position of the Orthodox parties: The block between the coalition and the opposition. Lieberman knows that, and he will make Netanyahu’s life miserable. Eventually, he might even bring the government down in a maneuver that should have more Likud votes go his way in the next elections. Polls have him approaching 20 seats, but Lieberman wants more. The wild card is the General Prosecutor’s decision whether to press charges against Lieberman, expected to be given in a few weeks. Lieberman, it seems, has already launched his counter-attack, claiming in a weekend interview to Yedioth Ahronoth that he is the victim of political persecution. Even if Lieberman is forced to resign, the fate of the government would remain in his hands.
4. Labor might split again, with some members deserting to Meretz or forming a new political party. Anyway, Kadima will continue to be the strong center-left force in the Knesset, with one or two more parties to its left.
5. The peace process is dead. In case anyone had any doubts, the day’s events made it clear that from now on, this government won’t be able to take even the tiniest step towards a peace settlement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has used his political credit: The slightest indication that he is willing to consider concessions, and the rightwing elements in his party would have the government fall. The PM has no room to maneuver.
To renew direct negotiations the Kadima-Left block would need to come closer to 60 seats in the next elections (it has 50 now). It could happen if international pressure on Israel continues, and if the Obama Administration reveals Netanyahu’s refusal to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians. This type of pressure could be effective, much in the way the confrontation with George Bush’s administration hurt PM Yitzhak Shamir in 1992’s elections and paved the way to Oslo.