Labor leadership candidate Ehud Barak called for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's resignation Tuesday, but left his own future unclear in a hastily called press conference at Kibbutz Sdot Yam in which he broke 10 months of silence.
Barak had intended to continue with his strategy of avoiding the press until the May 28 Labor primary, but he invited reporters to a press conference before a campaign event at the seaside kibbutz after his closest supporters accused him of zigzagging on the question of whether he would be willing to serve as defense minister under Olmert.
The answer Barak gave was that he was willing to accept the Defense portfolio for an interim period, until an election or the formation of a new government led by someone other than Olmert. But he acknowledged that such a period could last for an extended period of time, a period during which he intended to be Olmert's defense minister.
Such an answer allowed Barak to satisfy his allies among Labor ministers who want to remain in the cabinet while simultaneously pleasing the Labor electorate, which is upset at Olmert for not resigning in the wake of the Winograd Committee's interim report on his failures during the Second Lebanon War.
"I am sure the prime minister, whom I respect as an Israeli patriot, will find a way to reach personal conclusions, but so far it hasn't happened," Barak said, speaking outside the kibbutz cafeteria. "If he does, it will pave the way for a government Labor can take part in. But if he doesn't [do it] by May 29, I will work to reach wide consensus in my party and among faction heads on an election date."
Addressing his own future, Barak added: "In the interim period, until the formation of a new government or the setting of an election date, in light of the deep, sensitive and urgent challenges Israel is facing, I will be ready - if conditions permit it - to contribute my experience as best I can for the fundamental changes that need to be made in the IDF."
Barak told The Jerusalem Post following the press conference that he decided that Labor ministers should remain in Olmert's government because "leaving would not accomplish anything as long as Olmert has other [coalition] options."
Asked whom he wanted Kadima to choose as its next leader, Barak said, "It would not be right or democratic for me to express an opinion or have an impact on who should lead another party."
Olmert's associates said they were glad Barak was willing to be his defense minister, but they added that "the prime minister does not work for Barak and he won't set an election date to help him win the primary."
Barak's opponents in the race slammed him for his ambiguity, except for incumbent Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who declined to respond, because "Barak didn't say anything."
MK Ami Ayalon said the public was sick of manipulative leaders and that "for Labor to win back the public's trust and return to power, it must speak clearly and not in blurrily worded and evasive phraseology."
MK Ophir Paz-Pines said Barak "ended his quiet silence and now he is continuing to shut up loud and clear, by saying one thing and its opposite in the same sentence."
He said he would respond to Barak's vagueness by bringing an unambiguous proposal to the Labor central committee calling for Olmert to quit and for Labor to leave the government if he does not.
MK Danny Yatom said Barak "continued to leave Labor voters in the fog."
Barak later mocked his opponents in a speech to the kibbutzniks.
"It wouldn't be a fair fight if our candidate against [Likud leader Binyamin] Netanyahu is someone who hasn't been a minister or deputy minister," Barak said, referring to Ayalon.
Barak accused Ayalon of endorsing the Saudi diplomatic plan without understanding its implications and scoffed at Peretz's idea of leasing West Bank land back from the Palestinians the way Hong Kong was leased to Britain.
Barak also responded to an e-mail Peretz sent Labor members that outlined negative statements the Winograd Report made about Barak's tenure as prime minister.
Barak said that when he was prime minister, Hizbullah's presence in south Lebanon was just beginning and the kidnapping of IDF soldiers on the Lebanese border in late 2000 was not a result of his unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. Barak added that he could not have responded then the way Olmert did last summer because in late 2000, the second intifada had just begun, Israeli Arabs were rioting in the North and Israel could not have handled another military front.