The parliamentary faction representing the party that founded and built the state of Israel and that dominated its governments for decades was today reduced to mere single digits — Israel’s Labor Party now has eight members in the Knesset. This latest dilution resulted from a move that took everyone by surprise, enacted by its now-erstwhile leader, still the country’s defense minister, Ehud Barak.
To make any sense of the shock that has just convulsed Israeli politics, a very brief primer is in order. Israel is a parliamentary democracy in which the country is a single electoral district and members of the parliament, the Knesset, are elected on party lists according to a pure system of proportional representation (with a threshold of two percent for entering parliament). The system has always made for a proliferation of parties being represented in the Knesset, for government by coalition, with various rules being introduced over the years to prevent too much horse-trading, including one stipulating that for a new faction to split away from an existing party and be recognized with full rights in parliament, the breakaway faction must constitute at least one-third of the members of the mother party.
Ehud Barak took four fellow members of Labor’s Knesset grouping with him to form the Atzmaut or Independence faction, thereby meeting that one-third bar (Labor had a total of 13 seats, the Knesset is a 120 seat parliament). The relevant Knesset committee has already approved the split and recognized Barak’s new faction. The five-member Atzmaut will continue to serve in Netanyahu’s coalition government and Barak will remain minister of defense. The rump Labor faction, with eight MKs, has announced its intention to quit the coalition, and the three ministers belonging to this faction all tended their resignations in the course of today (Benjamin ‘Fuad’ Ben-Eliezer, Trade and Industry; Yizhak ‘Buji’ Herzog, Welfare; and Avishai Braverman, minister for Minorities).
The most popular metaphor for now in the Israeli press harkens back to Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu’s days in the Israeli army elite unit, the Sayeret Matkal – that this political move was a precision-planned, lightning and secret strike that took the enemy (in this case, the Labor Party that Barak himself was leader of while planning the mission as well as the opposition Kadima Party) by surprise.