Ehud Barak’s backroom deal violates democratic principles

In abandoning Labor and choosing self-interest over principles, Ehud Barak has betrayed both his voters and the spirit of democracy

Politics smell.  This is nothing new.  But for some reason in Israel the odor seems to linger.  Monday’s announcement by Defense Minister Ehud Barak that he and four of his fellow Knesset members were leaving the slightly left-of-center Labor to form their own independent party was perceived – and thus dismissed – by many Israelis as politics-as-usual.  It appears Barak’s only other option was to stay with Labor and face an internal vote that would have seen him ousted anyway, only to be followed by Labor’s withdrawal from Netanyahu’s coalition.  So Barak did what any politician interested in self-preservation would have done: he struck a deal to save himself.  But that is precisely what stinks.  Barak essentially told his former Labor colleagues, “You think you don’t need me?  Oh no, it is I who doesn’t need.”  And he proved it, for now.

Israel is often hailed as the only real democracy in the Middle East, so looking at what else is currently happening in the region keeps things in perspective.  Tunisia’s popular unrest has led to the ousting of the tyrannical Ben-Ali.  Dozens have died in the ensuing violence.  The North African country’s future could go in one of many directions.  So while Tunisia’s future is promising it is also worrying.  Meanwhile, Lebanon’s fragile status quo is increasingly threatened by the release of a UN reporting indicting Hezbollah (a prominent political party) of involvement in the murder of that country’s former leader (the head of a different party).   Israel’s neighbor to the north risks returning to civil war if its delicate political balancing act is thrown off course any further.   In Israel, a former president was just convicted of rape.  Days later (though unrelated) an odd political reshuffling has led to a partially different government.  Not a single shot was fired, not a single person set himself alight, there has been no popular uprising, and there has not even been a hiccup in governance.  So perhaps Israel deserves its title.  Still, most Israelis prefer to compare themselves not to Tunisia and Lebanon, but rather to themselves – meaning, Israelis like to look at what they can achieve, and default to what they are stuck with.  And thus, a few factors have added insult to injury.

First, just days ago what remains of the Israeli Left turned out for one of its largest demonstrations in a very long time.  For a generation that protests by forwarding an email or updating their Facebook status, the presence of such a large group of people in Tel Aviv on a Saturday night is not to be dismissed.  Many viewed the rally as the catalyst to the rebirth of the Left – the REAL Left.  But their thunder was stolen by Barak.  Ironically, his name does not mean “thunder” but rather “lightening,” alluding to the swift manner in which he struck them.

Second, Barak could not have pulled this off without a nod from Netanyahu himself.  Thus the new party’s name  — “Independence” (rather than “Co-dependence”) — is both ironic and a slap in the face to those who cast their 2009 ballot not for Labor but rather for the not-Likud option.  It is they who are most disappointed.  They voted for Labor not because of Barak’s leadership but in spite of it.  The party’s 13 mandates belonged to them, not to Barak, and thus he should have restrained from doing with the numbers as he pleases.  Barak’s actions may have been kosher, but they certainly were not in the spirit of democracy.

Third, the day of Barak’s announcement coincided with Martin Luther King Day in the US.  As Americans honored a man who put the interests of his community, his people and his country before his own, Israelis saw a leading figure do what is best for himself.  Dr. King committed himself to doing right and to undoing wrong.  Indeed, he gave his life for it.  So where is Israel’s Dr. King?  Certainly he does not exist in the form of backroom deals.

Last night during my cab-ride home, on the radio was playing the 1980s classic Footloose anthem “I Need a Hero.”  I chuckled and explained the irony to the driver.  I asked him, “Where is Labor’s hero?”  He asked me, “Where is Israel’s hero?”

Labor deserves more, and will hopefully get it; Israel deserves more, but will likely not.  After all, it is only January.  2011 is going to be quite the interesting year, if not quite the stinky one.

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Gurvitz: Barak’s move increases chances of war with Iran