Magazine

Ehud Barak betrayed his party and the nation

Instead of choosing what is best for the country, the defense minister, true to form, chose what is best for himself.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem
Ehud Barak’s dramatic departure from the Labor Party, designed to help him remain in the cabinet, has solidified his role as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s enabler. For two years, Barak has led Labor to irrelevance while facilitating the right-wing policies of the government led by Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Throughout this time, Barak has maintained that his staying in the government was in the interests of national security.

In truth, his position in the government has served to undermine national security. His latest move suggests that he will continue to do so. Far from supporting “Independence” – the name of Barak’s new political movement – his continued irresponsible behavior will only further intensify the country’s isolation.

The assumption that Barak joined the coalition to moderate its policies has proven to be false. Upon joining in March 2009, Barak told his party, “I am not afraid of Binyamin Netanyahu. We will not serve as anyone’s fig leaf. We will ensure there will not be a narrow right-wing government, but a real government that looks after the State of Israel.”

If only this were true.

Instead, Barak has been party to a government that has created friction with allies like Turkey and the US, become hostage to settlers and rightwing initiatives, pursued loyalty oaths to discredit Israeli Arabs and McCarthy-like witch-hunts of left-wing peace activists and humanitarian watchdog groups – all while the peace process has ground to a halt. The US believed in Barak but, as recently reported, it no longer does. One Israeli official reportedly said that a US official outlined the White House’s frustration with Barak clearly.

INSTEAD OF leaving the Netanyahu government on principle, based on its failed and even deranged policies, Barak has doubleddown, and the relationship with the US is likely to suffer as a result.

Barak undermined Labor, brought it to its knees and now, much to the relief of its remaining members, he has left it. The party is merely a fragment of its former self and it has Barak to blame. Since the collapse of the Oslo Accords at Camp David, Barak has been insistent that only he could bring peace and security.

But his delusions of grandeur have derailed a once strong and vibrant political party, and along with it, the influence of its platform of peace with security.

But as Labor members like Isaac Herzog, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Avishay Braverman pick up the pieces, they can take solace in the fact that Barak will no longer have their party hostage in a government pursuing policies that are antithetical to their principles. “The Labor Party, which founded the State of Israel, got rid of the hump on its back,” Herzog told reporters. “Ehud Barak’s masked ball is over.”

Barak has all along claimed that he serves as a shield of national security concerns. But national security is more threatened today than ever before, and its relationships with allies frayed. Hizbullah and its patron, Iran, are flexing their muscles in southern Lebanon, Hamas remains a threat in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority is weakened in the West Bank by the ineffectual peace process and the prospect for peace with Syria remains remote amidst Lieberman’s outlandish comments and behavior.

The country is more isolated in the international community than at any time before; its ties in the US, and even with the American Jewish community, are becoming strained. Is this Barak’s idea of national security? All of these setbacks can be attributed to Barak’s enabling the Netanyahu government to avoid policies that would secure Israel’s place among the international community, such as presenting a peace plan of its own.

Instead of being ashamed, Barak remains in the limelight, and therefore he is proud. Only the people are ashamed.

FOR THE Palestinians, Barak’s latest move is another blow to hopes that the once powerful Labor Party might reemerge as a partner for peace. Like the Americans, the Palestinians had hoped Barak would serve to moderate the far right-wing nature of Netanyahu’s government.

Instead, he has split Labor and become part of the right-wing establishment. This will add fuel to the belief that the Palestinians have no partner, intensifying the campaign to pass resolutions criticizing and isolating Israel at the UN, as well as gain recognition for a Palestinian state throughout the international community. Rather than convincing the Palestinians that they have no choice but to deal with a stable (yet uncompromising rightwing) government, as many in the coalition have claimed, Barak’s move will likely only nudge them toward more unilateral tactics.

Barak had a choice. He could have left the government, taking Labor’s 12 seats out of the 74-seat coalition, leaving it vulnerable to collapse.

In the process, the government would be comprised of exclusively right-wing members, many of whom are opposed to the concept of land for peace. Doing so would have demonstrated leadership and dedication to core principles, to doing all Israel can to promote peace while ensuring its security and the vibrancy of its democracy.

These have been the espoused values of the Labor Party, to which Barak has subscribed since he entered politics in 1995. Taking Labor out of the government would have contrasted a weak, right-wing coalition with 61 seats with a centrist, peace-promoting opposition of 59 seats. But it would have also taken away Barak’s belief in his own influence, making him simply part of the opposition led by Kadima’s Tzipi Livni. Therefore, Barak did not make this choice. Instead of choosing what is best for the country, Barak, true to form, betrayed both his party and the nation and chose what is best for himself.

It is a farce that in his statement announcing his new party Barak said, “The top priority [of this movement] will be first and foremost the state, then the party and only at the end, us.”

The new Independence faction of five seats will remain a fig leaf for the coalition, now at 66 seats, while the remaining members of Labor will join the opposition. In some cases, Labor members may join Kadima. While the government is weaker in number, it has gained strength by removing the cloud that the grumblings within Labor had caused.

Sadly, it may have also removed hope for turning the tide against the momentum pulling the country into isolation.

Barak is now a national tragedy. A leader who once held such promise has now driven the founding party of the state into the ground. He has cast his lot with Netanyahu and a right-wing government that has shown no interest in safeguarding the prospects for peace, nor the principles of democracy.

After Barak’s announcement, Netanyahu told reporters, “The whole world knows, and the Palestinians know, that this government will be around for the next few years and that it is with this government that they should negotiate for peace.”

If Barak can somehow bring this right-wing government to achieve this goal, his actions will be vindicated. But this time, nobody will be fooled into counting on him to provide principled and moral leadership.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.


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