Barak says he will not return to Labor, citing fractured left-wing field

Former PM rejects calls to rejoin his old party, says the political mergers that are a ‘necessary condition’ for a change in government unlikely to happen

Former prime minister Ehud Barak, during a media interview in Tel Aviv, September 30, 2019. (File: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Former prime minister Ehud Barak, during a media interview in Tel Aviv, September 30, 2019. (File: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Former prime minister Ehud Barak said Monday that he will not run to lead the moribund Labor party in the March elections.

Recent weeks had seen rumors and reports that Barak would run for the party’s leadership in its upcoming primaries, but in a statement posted to his Facebook page, he said he had decided against rejoining his former party.

Barak said the “main consideration” for him was the “chance of establishing a large, unified bloc that would lead to the establishment of a government that would deal with the deep humanitarian and economic crisis” and restore faith in government.

“I found a lot of willingness and good intentions, but there is still not the maturity needed for decisions about such a bloc,” he said.

Barak said it was not clear that a union between the leading center-left parties, including Labor, Yesh Atid, and The Israelis, was possible and that “I believe a union is a necessary condition for a change in government.”

“With a heavy heart, under these conditions, I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be right for me to stand as a candidate for the leadership of the Labor party,” he wrote, adding that he had received requests to return to the party from its leadership and “hundreds” of protesters.

חברות וחברים יקרים,אני מודה מכל לב לכם חברי הנהלת מפלגת ה'עבודה' והפעילים מכל רחבי הארץ, על האמון המרגש המקופל במאות…

Posted by ‎Ehud Barak – אהוד ברק‎ on Monday, January 18, 2021

Last week, leading board members of Labor called on Barak to run in the primaries in a public statement.

“The order of the hour requires you to be a candidate for the good of the State of Israel,” the statement said. “There is no figure on the political map with your experience, leadership standing, and national status to succeed and lead a change in government.”

All of the letter’s signatories are considered supporters of the party’s current leader, Amir Peretz, who has said he will not run in the primaries and will instead seek the presidency.

There are currently two candidates for the Labor party leadership: MK Merav Michaeli and attorney Gil Beilin. Party No. 2 Itzik Shmuli, the current welfare minister, has not yet decided on his candidacy.

Earlier this month, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Labor must hold primaries, despite a decision by Peretz to cancel them, in a win for Michaeli, who pushed for the primaries.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli speaks during a protest in Jerusalem, November 9, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Primaries were introduced into Israeli politics in the early 1990s, when several major parties sought to bolster public support by increasing participation in the democratic process. Since then, however, most new parties have forgone internal elections, opting instead for a system in which the party leader or a committee of officials chooses a “perfect” slate, unsullied by the caprices of party members.

Labor, Israel’s ruling left-wing party during its first 30 years and a dominant force in the country’s politics until several years ago, has lost virtually all of its support, and recent opinion polls predict it will not enter the next Knesset on its own.

In April, following the last election, the party’s central committee voted in favor of joining the unity government, upending repeated campaign promises to never serve under a prime minister facing a criminal indictment. Peretz serves as the economy minister and Shmuli as minister of labor, social welfare, and social services.

Michaeli rejected sitting in the coalition under Netanyahu, making her a de facto opposition member within her own party, and within the coalition.

Chairman of the Labor party Amir Peretz seen during a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 12, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu and Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz reached an agreement that was supposed to see Gantz replace Netanyahu as prime minister in November 2021, but a loophole in the agreement saw the coalition collapse due to Netanyahu’s refusal to pass an annual budget.

Israel is consequently now gearing up for a fourth election in two years, which will take place on March 23.

Barak sat out the last Labor party primaries a year and a half ago, and instead formed his own faction, the Israel Democratic party. It ran with the left-wing Meretz party and did not make it into the Knesset in the September 2019 elections.

Barak, a center-left politician who previously served as the IDF chief of staff, was prime minister in 1999-2001 and head of the Labor party. After leaving office, he quit politics, but he returned years later and served as defense minister under Netanyahu, before leaving for a second time in 2013.

He attempted to make a political comeback running in the September 2019 Knesset elections, as part of the left-wing Democratic Camp alliance, but failed to make it into the Knesset. His campaign was tarnished by his former business ties to disgraced US financier Jeffrey Epstein.

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