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The spectre of Ehud "Barach" ("ran away" in Hebrew) returned this week in an entirely new context to haunt the defense minister.
The slanderous moniker was originally bestowed on Barak by Tzahi Hanegbi a decade ago, when Hanegbi accused him of fleeing the scene of the 1992 Tze'elim-2 training accident in which five soldiers were killed by a missile fired by one of their comrades. But the left-wing activists who wanted to put it on a sign that would have been prominently displayed at Saturday night's rally in Tel Aviv were instead attacking the Labor Party leader for "running away from Rabin's heritage" (Labor officials pressed them to change it to "forgetting").
And not just them. On Sunday, both Meretz leader Yossi Beilin and Vice Premier Haim Ramon accused Barak of shifting to the right in recent weeks. "Contrary to what we've seen so far, I hope that Barak will once again act to bolster the [peace] process," Ramon told Army Radio, adding "I would like to hear from the Labor chairman what he is doing to help the prime minister ahead of the Annapolis conference."
Beilin asserted that Barak is seeking to position Labor "to the right of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima."
As Ramon and Beilin's long-standing enmity toward their old party colleague/rival is public record, too much need not be made of attacks that surely mix personal and political considerations with ideological concerns. Still, some of Barak's actions - especially his ill-planned idea to cut electricity in parts of Gaza Â¬ and his statements, or more conspicuously the ones he hasn't made until recently in strong support of the Annapolis conference, do lend these criticisms some justification. Especially surprising were his sharp comments at the rally against Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, the kind of public criticism of the legal establishment one normally hears only from political quarters well right of the Labor Party.
To be fair, in his speech at the Rabin rally, Barak seemed at pains to assert that he has the prime minister's back as Olmert prepares to negotiate with the Palestinians in America, declaring: "Our test is Annapolis... to go toward it with judgment and confidence, to open diplomatic horizons wherever possible."
Regarding Rabin, he added: "We promise that you, Yitzhak, that the path you chose will win the day."
There is certainly no justice to the accusation that Barak is forsaking Rabin's path. The slain prime minister was no stranger to taking tough measures against the Palestinians when he thought it necessary, including collective punishments along the lines of Barak's planned electricity cuts to Gaza.
Nor can one say for sure that Rabin would been particularly enthusiastic about meeting the Palestinians in Annapolis, or have condoned some of the sacrifices the Olmert government is reportedly considering.
But it is reasonable to assume that at least one former prime minister would wholeheartedly support Olmert's willingness to make serious concessions to the Palestinians at Annapolis - and that's Ehud Barak.
After all, it was Barak who did just that at Camp David in 2000, including agreeing to cede Israeli sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, just as Ramon so controversially proposed last month.
Barak doesn't talk about that much in public nowadays - indeed, he has been noticeably circumspect of late, not only about what he was prepared to give up at Camp David, but about what's on his current diplomatic horizon as regards a final-status agreement with the Palestinians.
Instead, he seems more comfortable focusing on the military measures needed to contend with the situation along the Gaza border, and has offered what appears to be vaguely tepid encouragement to those heading off to Annapolis.
To be fair, as defense minister and the junior member of the coalition, this could be generously viewed as simply fulfilling the bare minimum of his governmental duties. One can also hardly blame him if he wants to conveniently distance himself, to some degree, from a possible stalemate in the current negotiations with the Palestinians, after having lost his own government following the failure of Camp David.
Beyond that, one can't help thinking, as Beilin asserts, that Barak is now also deliberately positioning Labor to the Right of Kadima - or more accurately, is trying to reclaim the center ground for his party in the next elections. Such a party, headed by a troika of tough-talking ex-generals such as himself, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Matan Vilna'i, would also prove to be a more attractive coalition partner for factions to the Right, than the last few incarnations of Labor headed by Amir Peretz, Amram Mitzna, Shimon Peres and the old Ehud Barak.
However, if the current government holds together, and negotiations with the Palestinians progress significantly in the next few months, or even years, then Barak, at some point, is going to have to come out and say whether he is prepared to go as far, or even further, than the Barak at Camp David did. At that point his "center" position may not hold, and the defense minister will have to stop running from, or at least ignoring, his own considerable record.