Ehud Barak 298.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Former prime minister Ehud Barak launched his political comeback on Sunday night with an speech to a sympathetic audience of 150 mostly elderly kibbutzniks at Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley.
The modest kibbutz cafeteria was a symbolic choice for Barak, who wants to prove to the Labor members voting in the May 28 party primary that he has become more a more modest man since leaving the Prime Minister's Office, despite the wealth he earned in the business world during his break from politics.
Barak said that if elected, he would lead Labor as part of a team, having learned from his time as prime minister when he was criticized for not delegating authority. He included his competition, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and MK Ophir Paz-Pines, among the team, but he also criticized the candidates running against him for being too leftist to win a general election.
"Yitzhak Rabin and I got elected because we were perceived as coming from the Center," Barak told the crowd. "Some of the candidates are considered radical leftists. You cannot win an election in the State of Israel with leftist policies."
Barak slammed Peretz, saying he "does not think Labor should have only a socioeconomic policy, [one] that is above all other policies." In criticizing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet, Barak said, "It is wrong to get stuck in a competition over who has a prettier diplomatic plan."
Following Barak's 20-minute speech, the kibbutzniks asked him why he emphasized that he was running for defense minister more than for Labor leader. They neglected to ask him how he would have handled the recent Lebanon war differently than Peretz, but they criticized his past and current policies on a myriad of issues.
"That's nice that you say you want to work as part of a team now, but you forgot to work together with people last time and you left us a party in shambles," Oded Gafni told him.
"What you say on economic issues is the same as Bibi [Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu]," said Yehuda, another kibbutznik.
"You are the father of the policy of unilateral disengagement, which you started in Lebanon and, in my opinion, has been proven mistaken," said a woman named Smadar.
Barak responded to Gafni that he "did not say that he had changed, just that he had learned lessons."
To Yehuda, he said he was "sensitive to socioeconomic issues but that if elected he would allow Labor politicians with more experience dealing with such issues to handle them. To Smadar, he made a point of not ruling out future unilateral steps.
"I would want to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, but you can't force an agreement on the other side and it takes two to tango," Barak said. "If there is no partner, Israel might have to ask the international community to help the Palestinians prepare themselves for a diplomatic solution in which there will be two states for two peoples."
As for Syria, Barak said that he, like his predecessors, had tried to reach an agreement with Damascus, but the talks had broken down over what Israel would receive in return. He said Israel should not ignore Syrian President Bashar Assad's overtures but that if the Syrians had seriously wanted to reach an agreement, they would have already taken steps that would have resulted in concessions from Olmert, and even from former prime minister Ariel Sharon.
Barak said Israel faced three struggles: fighting terrorism; building national unity; and presenting the justice of its cause to the world.
Regarding Iran, he said an Arab leader had told him that Israel remained the strongest weight against Iran in the region. He said that with such threats, it was important for Israel to have a defense minister with his 42 years of security experience.
"All the candidates are suitable and serious," Barak said. "Some are suitable to be defense minister, but in the current situation, I believe I bring the most security experience. The leaders we have had were skilled and had good intentions, but they just didn't have enough experience to lead us properly."