My Word: Bye-bye Barak? So long, Labor?

In Israeli politics – particularly in an age in which opportunism is par for the course – obituaries should be prepared but not published.

January 22, 2011 22:27
Liat Collins

liat collins 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In a preelection interview many years ago, I once noted that Ehud Barak had in his Knesset office a gold statuette of a horse rearing up, about to gallop off. It was given to the then-Labor Party leader when he was still IDF chief of General Staff. He seemed during that year, 1998, “a bit like that golden steed; poised to take off, without actually gathering speed,” I wrote.

Last week I recalled that interview, and that symbolic horse, and thought that perhaps it wasn’t preparing to gallop after all but readying itself to bring its hooves crashing down to the ground, no matter who was in the way.

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Barak was not happy with the original image, telling me that he was going places. And indeed he did manage to get elected prime minister in May 1999 in the direct elections against his sometimes- friend, sometimes-nemesis Binyamin Netanyahu, but he didn’t manage to stay long in the saddle.

For sure, he preferred my comparison of him to a stallion frozen in time to the image the Hebrew press was playing up and which came back to haunt him again last week when he announced in a surprise political maneuver that he and four Labor MKs were quitting Labor and creating their own faction, Atzmaut, Independence. Yediot Aharonot predictably published an unflattering photo of the defense minister, with his tongue sticking out, and the banner headline: “Ehud barah.”

No matter where he goes, and how he gets there, someone is going to remind Barak of the accusation that he “fled” (barah) the site of the 1992 Tze’elim II disaster as chief of General Staff, abandoning wounded soldiers in the field.

(The state comptroller at the time, Miriam Ben-Porat, ruled there was no basis to press charges, but the phrase stuck with Barak just as surely as his title of former chief of General Staff.) Last week, the term was again bandied around in the Knesset no less than in the media.

Yisrael Hayom, associated rightly or wrongly with Prime Minister Netanyahu, was more flattering, declaring the move “Barak’s turnaround,” in a play of words recalling the “mahapach” when the Likud surprised Labor by winning the 1977 elections.

One thing is for sure: It was all about Barak. It was, from his point of view, a brilliant move designed to call the bluff of the Labor ministers and MKs, including Isaac Herzog, Avishay Braverman and Shelly Yacimovich, who constantly threatened to quit if the party did not pull out of the coalition, and it means that Barak can keep the Defense portfolio he adores.

All the media mentioned that the maneuver, planned secretly, recalled the glory days of Barak and Netanyahu in the early 1970s, when Barak was the commanding officer of the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) in which all three Netanyahu brothers served.

NO LESS predictably, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni decried not only the move – which weakens her chances of entering the coalition or expediting the next elections – but also the “IDF old boys” analogy with which she can never compete (and instead of shrilly complaining about it, she would do better to stress her own valuable assets as soon as her advisers help her find them).

Listening to anyone from Kadima berating Barak as an opportunist raises a smirk. Kadima, after all, was formed in no less of a surprise maneuver by Ariel Sharon, and has attracted MKs and candidates from a broad spectrum united by something that Livni always calls “the Kadima way,” but has yet to fully explain in a manner even most political analysts can understand, let alone the average potential voter. A vote for Livni in the last elections was a vote against Netanyahu rather than for any clear platform.

Instead of whining, this is Livni’s chance to really attract Labor voters on their traditional ground – centrist-to-left peacemaking policy and socioeconomic awareness.

The latter is another area abandoned by Barak in recent years. There cannot be many of voting age who don’t know that the country’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion (after a not dissimilar maneuver, incidentally) retired quietly to a modest kibbutz home in the Negev, while Barak resides in the very far from humble Akirov Towers in Tel Aviv (and is mired in a scandal about employing an illegal worker as a house cleaner).

Whatever happened to the “proletarian party” label? It might have been sold for profit like a parcel of land on a once egalitarian kibbutz.

It was actually Barak who coined the phrase “hazkena baprozdor,” the legendary old lady in the corridor, talking of the shortage of hospital beds during a past election campaign. That particular old lady would be dead of old age by now, if nothing else, but sadly her daughter has taken her embarrassing place. Not that Barak seems to care about her any more.

Nurses have been threatening to strike because of the overflow of patients not just in the corridors but even in hospital dining rooms. But the subject has been overshadowed by the politicking.

This was not even the first time that Barak had fashioned a new party for himself. In 1999, he created One Israel, together with Meimad and Gesher. The main remnant of that period is the memory of the investigation into the party’s funding.

Labor was left this time with a small Knesset faction of eight members – divided, in true Labor Party style, into two camps – and a major headache.

(The party debts, by the way, will probably be split between Independence and Labor.) Now that the horse has galloped off into its personal sunset, there is no point in locking the stable door, but a lot of cleaning and sweeping needs to be done. It is Labor that needs to get rid of the bad smell. The gimmick by Kadima MKs, spraying air freshener in the Knesset plenum, did not bode well for a period of clean politics until the government finishes its term.

Many were eulogizing Labor as a lost cause after Barak switched horses in midstream. It was depicted as the end of an era. Yediot even printed a “requiem in photos of the Labor Party.”

But in Israeli politics – particularly in an age in which opportunism is par for the course – obituaries should be prepared but not published.

Who, after all, thought that Netanyahu and Barak would compete not once but twice to lead the country? How did Amir Peretz, perceived as part of the problem with the way that Lebanon II was handled, begin to make his comeback? And how did Amram Mitzna, a Labor Party leader turned mayor of a small Negev town, come to be considered a possible leader – again? Ditto Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, possibly the man with the most to lose from Barak’s strategic move.

Labor still has its natural supporters in cities and on kibbutzim, among Jewish and Arab voters. To succeed, it needs a new rider holding the reins and a clear direction. The fact that the current government has a defense minister who, as prime minister, has already failed once to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians (not for lack of trying) and a foreign minister who doesn’t have anything nice to say about them could work in its favor, a political gift horse.

Nothing in this country’s political scene would surprise me, short of Ariel Sharon waking up from his coma and returning to the race.

As for Barak, wherever he has been and wherever he is heading, one thing is certain: He’s on an ego trip. No wonder he rides roughshod.

The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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