(photo credit: )
Ehud Barak's impromptu press conference on the lawn of Kibbutz Sdot Yam - on a makeshift platform covered in cheap blue fabric, with children laughing in the background and the main actor in the farce late due to traffic jams - was an illustration, not only of his predicament but of Labor's situation. No leadership, no agenda and no idea where it's going from here.
Eight days after the Winograd Committee published its excoriating report on the Second Lebanon War, the former prime minister, the man who wants to do it all over again, was finally dragged in front of the cameras to deliver his reaction. The only problem was - he had nothing to say.
Of course Ehud Olmert must draw his conclusions from the report, said the man once hailed as a bona fide genius. Only he wasn't clear about exactly what those conclusions should be. And if Olmert doesn't, Barak himself will act to advance the elections.
But meanwhile, he wouldn't have any problem with "contributing" his experience as defense minister to this government, until the unspecified date of the elections.
Barak might have appeared to be speaking in riddles, but there was a clear message hidden in between the tortuous sentences. Ever since he launched his campaign to recapture the Labor leadership four months ago, Barak has refused to give any interviews or speak directly to the press. He has given off-the-record briefings, but prefers to address small gatherings of party members.
Like the crafty special forces officer he once was, Barak is taking one objective at a time. For now, he's interested in the 100,000 Labor members who will be voting on May 28. Once he's won the primary, he can turn his sights to the rest of the electorate.
Barak stuck to his master plan at Sdot Yam. Despite finally having to address the assembled media corps - and through them, whoever could be bothered to watch their TV sets - he was still talking only to those eligible to vote in the primary.
Make no mistake, he was telling them: I'll drive a hard bargain with Olmert, but I certainly won't take Labor out of the government and risk an early general election. First I'm going to be defense minister for a couple of years, at least.
Barak believes the opinion polls that indicate a majority of Labor members, despite Winograd's findings, want the party to stay in the coalition. Labor currently controls powerful ministries, with hefty budgets and hundreds of appointments.
The ministers, their supporters and a significant portion of the party's grassroots are loath to relinquish this disproportionate share of power - especially since early elections could bring a right-wing government and a return to the wilderness of opposition.
It remains to be seen whether most Labor members believe the party that founded the state should present an ideological alternative rather than simply cling to power.
Now that his rivals for the leadership have made clear that they will make trouble for Olmert if elected, Barak is doing everything to make sure that Labor members who prefer otherwise will vote for him. More than anything, he wants to get the necessary 40 percent of the vote that will give him the leadership without a runoff.
Barak is worried that facing a rival who commands the combined support and organization of two or three candidates, together with the animosity still felt toward him, will cost him the job. To ensure his victory on May 28, he is banking on the baser instincts of at least 40,000 of his fellow members.
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