Barak's out, so where next for Labour Party?

Three historical ruling parties in the Middle East have taken severe beatings over the last two months: Egypt's National Democratic Party, Tunisia's Constitutional Democratic Party and Israel's Labour Party.

The analogy may not be exactly apt: the two Arab parties were pushed out of power this year by a combination of public protests and military pressure, while the Labour Party lost power 34 years ago in democratic elections and have managed to return to office only sporadically ever since.

But the party of Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Meir, Rabin and Peres - before he defected to Kadima - has remained the historical ruling party of a young state, which itself would be unimaginable without old Mapai (the Hebrew acronym of Labour's previous name - Workers Party of Eretz Yisrael).

Was the sudden departure of party leader Ehud Barak, along with a third of the party's MKs, two months ago, just another milestone in Labour's inexorable decline? The final falling of the axe? Or maybe the darkness before a new dawn?

At least half of the depleted parliamentary party of eight seem to believe so, or they wouldn't be planning to run for the leadership. Former ministers Amir Peretz, Avishay Braverman and Yitzhak Herzog, and former firebrand journalist Shelly Yehimovich, have all either made themselves candidates or are preparing to do so in the next few weeks.

The interesting thing about the potential candidates is that, for the first time, none of them is promising that they can return the party to power. On the contrary, they are all making it clear that there is no prospect of that in the foreseeable future.

What they are promising is to transform Labour into a viable party of opposition to the right-wing, capitalist tide of Israeli politics. Some are talking about old-fashioned socialist values, others prefer the social-democratic label.

But the brand name does not really matter any more. Labour in Israel is a totally discredited entity. Ehud Barak saw to that.

    Last updated: 2:54pm, March 24 2011