Middle Israel: Ehud Barak: A political eulogy
Hopefully, Barak’s departure will prove a milestone on the road back to social sensitivity, ideological sincerity and political humility.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak Photo: Reuters/Blaire Gable
Like the biblical Ehud, ours, too, was brave.
Ehud Barak may not have
ripped an enemy king’s belly with a double-edged dagger “haft after blade,” but
like Ehud Ben- Gera he too was no stranger to a long day’s battle, a sleepless
night’s ambush, and an enemy landscape’s menace and chill.
And like his
biblical namesake, our Ehud never tired of surprising – one morning a hit-man in
a wig, the next a mechanic barging into a hijacked airplane, one evening
seceding from his own party, and the next, while all expect a tactical
outflanking, embarking instead on a strategic retreat, or whatever it was that
we have witnessed this week.
Then again, unlike his biblical namesake,
whose military victories generated 80 years of peace, our Ehud’s political
career enjoyed not one day of quiet. Worse, the man who has so rightly earned a
place of honor in IDF annals as a daring commando will forever be synonymous
with political dilettantism, tragedy and farce.
THE DILETTANTISM was in
Barak wanted to be a peacemaker, but having previously
spent decades ordering people around it never crossed his mind that peace
involves two parties.
That is how, to everyone’s astonishment, his
announcements in 1999 of deadlines for peace deals with Hafez Assad and Yasser
Arafat later proved to have been made without any previous dialogue, even
indirectly, between him and either of the two. Barak then arrived personally for
talks with Syria even though his interlocutor was only the foreign minister, a
diplomatic asymmetry which any beginner statesman would immediately detect and
Having emerged from his Syrian misadventure empty-handed Barak
proceeded to his Palestinian fiasco, whereby what started off as the peace of
the brave ended up as the war of the suicides. Barak’s consequent electoral
trouncing by Ariel Sharon, the worst in Israeli history, thus sealed a brief but
eventful stint as a statesman.
All this was, to be sure, tragic enough,
but the consistently tragic strain in Barak’s political career was not about
statecraft but in the realm of ideology.
The kibbutznik who won the
backing of thousands with an impassioned vow to look after “the old woman at the
end of the corridor in the Nahariya governmental hospital” soon proved to care
little for domestic issues in general, and for social inequality in particular.
First he dedicated his time almost entirely to defense and foreign affairs, and
then he nestled in glitzy skyscrapers from where the working class that his
social-democratic party pretended to represent seemed even smaller than his
The farce was in Barak’s handling of people.
with the social skills of a bat, Barak managed to alienate nearly anyone who
worked with him, from aides, colleagues and activists to generals, ministers and
spin doctors. Having learned nothing and forgotten nothing, the man who as prime
minister made bizarre appointments, from Shlomo Ben-Ami the intellectual as
internal security minister to confrontational Yossi Sarid as education minister
while keeping the Bank of Israel without a governor for months, managed a decade
on to fight with one IDF chief before appointing one that was rejected by
regulators, and in the interim installing a temporary IDF chief, thus tinkering
with the most sensitive office under his jurisdiction as if it had been a
All this, of course, is besides his shrinking of Labor’s following
to its smallest size ever, a mere one tenth of the electorate, and then also
splitting in half its Knesset faction. That Barak was a political disaster is
therefore indisputable. The question is why? Was it merely his unique character
or was there something else to all this underperformance? Well, there indeed
TWO THINGS inspired Barak’s political career: His profession and the
The profession, military commander, is unique here in its
Nowhere else in the free world is the legislature so
swamped with retired generals. In Britain thoughts of, say, Bernard Montgomery
leading Britain doubtfully ever crossed one sane mind. Yes, Eisenhower and de
Gaulle were career generals who became effective national leaders, but they were
the exceptions. The rule is that generals rarely reach Western politics and even
more rarely do they become defense minister and commander- in-chief.
the US, while appointing George Marshall secretary of defense in 1950, Congress
said it was an exception and then stated: “This Act is not to be construed as
approval by the Congress of continuing appointments of military men to the
office of Secretary of Defense in the future. It is hereby expressed as the
sense of the Congress that after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary
of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be
And indeed, while Colin Powell and Alexander Haig were
secretaries of state, no postwar general was US secretary of
Why? Because when a general oversees the chief of staff he
becomes the de facto chief of staff, while the public loses its oversight of the
military and the nominal chief of staff becomes disgruntled, frustrated and
This basic wisdom is lost on us here. We have had too many
generals in politics generally, and as ministers of defense in
Finally, there was the zeitgeist.
Ehud Barak was the
quintessential product of Israel’s post-67 arrogance. He really thought, and
probably still thinks, he is a lot smarter than all the people around him, and
that they should each be thrown his little bone, for this one a pompous title
and for that a small budget, so they are all kept away from Ehud Barak while he
runs things – alone, swiftly, ingeniously, brilliantly and, needless to say,
Such was the era that was personified by Barak’s alter ego
Moshe Dayan. It was a bad era, one of bluster, bravado, hypocrisy and cynicism
of the sort later displayed by another former chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, now
also on his way to our political dustbin.
It is time this era came to an
end. Hopefully, Barak’s departure will prove a milestone on the road back to
social sensitivity, ideological sincerity and political humility.