Ehud Barak: The old warrior’s last hurrah

How Ehud Barak’s quest for a grand comeback crashed at takeoff

August 2, 2019 12:53
Ehud Barak: The old warrior’s last hurrah

Ehud Barak announces the formation of a new party on June 26 at Beit Sokolov in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

“I will be everyone’s prime minister,” shouted Ehud Barak, then 57, into a battery of microphones opposite a delirious multitude that crowded Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

The electoral landslide in 1999 that had just catapulted him to Israel’s helm seemed like the natural sequel of the recently christened politician’s previous career, in which he earned fame as Israel’s most decorated soldier.

Twenty years later, that euphoric night flickers as a dim memory, the high point of a tumultuous career whose subsequent deterioration amid multiple gambles, zigzags, squabbles and brawls now seems ready to be crowned by one last, and exceptionally quixotic, assault at the top.

Barak’s cumbersome return to the political arena quickly spun out of his control and landed him in Meretz, to Labor’s left, a political position from which he stands no chance of achieving his original aim, to return to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu for the second time in 20 years.

Barak’s political rise still remains the most meteoric Israel has ever seen.

Less than four years since joining politics as Yitzhak Rabin’s interior minister, Barak unseated Benjamin Netanyahu by a decisive 56% to 44% gap in the 1999 prime ministerial election, after having served as leader of the opposition and before that as foreign minister.

Since then, it has been mostly downhill.

The landslide of ’99 was fed by Barak’s aura as former IDF chief of the General Staff, and as the former special forces’ commander who took part in many daring operations behind enemy lines. Then, as a politician, Barak enamored much of the swing vote by fashioning himself as a social crusader, when he spoke about “the old woman at the end of the corridor in Nahariya’s state hospital.”

Delivered with great passion, that statement created the impression that Barak cared for what the Thatcherite Netanyahu’s opponents said he ignored, and that Labor’s new leader – unlike his predecessor, Shimon Peres – would focus on domestic issues.

That impression proved unfounded, and quickly. Barak spent most of his time on foreign affairs, setting out to deliver peace on two fronts – the Palestinian and the Syrian – and totally invested himself in these efforts, as well as in retrieving the IDF from Lebanon.

Most spectacularly, Barak announced deadlines for obtaining peace deals, deadlines that turned out to have been set without the knowledge of the Arab partners with whom he was to make a deal. While at it, Barak sent himself to the January 2000 talks with Syria in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, even though the Syrian attending was only the foreign minister of the day, Farouk al-Shara, and not Barak’s political equivalent, Hafez Assad.

The deal that this effort failed to produce was then coupled with the collapse of Barak’s talks with Yasser Arafat at Camp David, and the subsequent outbreak of the second intifada’s violence. Barak’s coalition partners jumped ship one by one, ultimately shrinking his backing to hardly one-third of the Knesset.

The consequence of all this was the shortest premiership in Israeli history, ending with a 63% to 37% electoral knockout by Ariel Sharon, the worst defeat ever for an incumbent Israeli premier, and a proverbial inversion of the landslide with which Barak began his stint at the helm.

None of this history deterred Barak, now 77, from grandly announcing on June 26 his return to the political fray with a new party, apparently assuming Israeli voters forgot his troubled political record.
They didn’t.

THE NEW party took 10 days to announce its name – Democratic Israel – but even before that, polls consistently suggested that the best Barak can hope for is 5% of the electorate, if he even crosses the 3.25% electoral threshold at all.

Barak, therefore, turned to Meretz’s new leader, Nitzan Horowitz, and got his agreement to merge their parties. However, contrary to Barak’s original plan, Labor refused to join the deal, and Meretz would not crown him its leader. To save face, Barak relegated himself to the No. 10 spot on the combined list.

A Channel 12 poll suggested that the combined list would get 10 seats, and Barak would therefore get into the next Knesset by the skin of his teeth. However, Israeli experience teaches that polls can be overly generous to new parties the day they are born.
The model Barak was trying to emulate is the one that worked well for Yair Lapid in 2013, when he used his public stature as a media celebrity to assemble an impressive group of successful citizens from varied fields, with whom he won 19 seats and planted a solid pillar at the heart of the political system.

Barak indeed gathered several interesting names, including Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yair Golan, a former deputy chief of the General Staff who made headlines by decrying, while in uniform, nationalist extremism; law professor Yifat Biton, a social and feminist activist; and Noa Rothman, a 42-year-old screenwriter whose fame was etched at 18, when she eulogized her slain grandfather Yitzhak Rabin at his funeral.

Still, this threesome is no match for the colorful battery of mayors, rabbis, spooks, public intellectuals, journalists, social activists, and immigrants from Russia, Ethiopia, and America that Lapid deployed, not to mention his political virginity at the time, a stark contrast to the countless maneuvers, schemes and ploys in which Barak has been embroiled since joining politics a quarter century ago.

Barak’s hope was to use Labor’s current crisis following its plunge to a mere six Knesset seats. Had things worked his way, his announcement would have been greeted by double-digit figures in the polls, thus creating a momentum that would have left the battered Labor Party little choice but to follow his lead into a center-left formation that would have challenged everyone else.

The quest to lead the center-left is what made Barak, while launching his move, attack Netanyahu head on. “I have known Netanyahu for more than 50 years,” he said in his party’s inaugural news conference in Tel Aviv. “Netanyahu has reached the end of his road. His colleagues, both in the party and in the coalition, know this, and it’s a shame they are paralyzed with fear.”
Impassioned though it was, Barak’s well-heralded political return soon seemed like a plunge into the abyss without a parachute – what began with disappointing polls was quickly followed by Labor failing to play by Barak’s script, and shutting its door in his face.

IN A surprise announcement, Labor’s old-new leader Amir Peretz emerged at a news conference on July 18 in Tel Aviv alongside Orly Levy-Abecassis, a former lawmaker for Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, and founder of Gesher (Bridge), a party that failed to cross the threshold in April’s election but did win a sizable 74,000 votes, nearly half of Labor’s 190,000.

Beyond this arithmetic lurk social identities and personal vendettas that Barak, at his age, will never be able to defeat.

Peretz and his new partner are identified with the Middle Eastern immigrations. Now 67, Peretz arrived from Morocco with his family when he was four. Levy-Abecassis is the daughter of former foreign minister David Levy, who arrived with his family from Morocco when he was 20.

Though the elder Levy joined Likud and was a minister in all the governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, whereas Peretz joined Labor, through which he was elected mayor of Sderot in 1983 and an MK in 1988, both men’s political careers reflected their origins on the social periphery.

Originally from Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, Barak is seen as a quintessential product of the Ashkenazi elite that established Israel, and which many among the Middle Eastern immigrations grew to resent. Barak originally tried to address this part of his background, issuing a public apology in 1997 “in the name of the Labor Party along the generations” for “the agony unintentionally dealt to many among the immigrants.”

However, Barak’s disinterest in social issues as prime minister, and his subsequent purchase of a multimillion-dollar penthouse atop a luxury tower in north Tel Aviv, left many of his original voters disillusioned with Barak’s priorities and sincerity. That is how Labor won only 13 Knesset seats when he returned to the party’s leadership in 2009, fewer even than that election’s third-largest party, Yisrael Beytenu.

Yet aside from this programmatic aspect is the pricklier issue of Barak’s personal history with Peretz and Levy-Abecassis, part of a broader social-skills problem.

BARAK’S comeback following his electoral debacle of 2001 happened in May 2007, when he defeated then-minister of defense Peretz in a primary election for Labor’s leadership. Barak then sent a fax to Peretz telling him he is replacing him as defense minister. Though the replacement was a foregone conclusion, the manner in which it was announced was humiliating.

The passage of 12 years has apparently tempered none of the humiliation, which likely played a role in Peretz’s announcement that he and Levy-Abecassis will not team up with Barak’s new party. A similar recollection played a role in Levy-Abecassis’s move.

A lawyer and mother of four who excelled in engineering social legislation, Levy-Abecassis never had much to do directly with Barak, but her father did. In 1999, when Barak prepared for his first electoral face-off with Netanyahu, he harnessed David Levy to his ticket.

The elder Levy’s political value was priceless at the time, as he had been a Likud leader and represented the electorate that historically resented Labor. Barak’s subsequent victory benefited from Levy’s alliance, certainly the way Levy saw things. Still, Barak eventually ignored his foreign minister and ultimately showed up at Camp David without him.

It, too, was an insult of the sort people never forget, and also bequeath to their children, as Barak has now learned, implicitly but painfully, from David Levy’s daughter.

This is why feverish efforts by Labor Party veterans to convince Peretz to join the Barak-Meretz ticket are failing as of this writing, with less than a week left for the submission of candidate lists.

Barak’s problematic social skills with allies, advisors and assistants have animated much of his political career, with political allies and personal assistants failing to survive long alongside him.

This flaw surfaced most ominously in 2011, when he split in half Labor’s already minuscule Knesset faction after refusing to accept its decision to bolt Netanyahu’s second government. Even more problematic was Barak’s conduct after his return in 2007 to the Defense Ministry, where he was meant to work opposite Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of the General Staff Amir Peretz had appointed.

Ashkenazi – now a lawmaker for Blue and White – soon found it impossible to function, with the defense minister’s micromanagement reaching such levels that he demanded to personally approve the appointment of every colonel.

Ultimately, the two men’s bureaus stopped communicating, creating a disconnect in Israel’s military management never previously or subsequently recorded, and a luxury that the Jewish state clearly cannot afford.

Meanwhile on the strategic plain, Barak emerged as the leading enthusiast of a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear program, a stance on which he was confronted by the heads of the IDF, Mossad, and Shin Bet, with Netanyahu ultimately taking their side.
In terms of his image, Barak the social misfit emerged from that saga as a strategic adventurer, besides the image he built as a political cynic. Most memorably following the February 2009 election for the 18th Knesset in which Labor plunged under his leadership from 19 seats to 13, Barak said, “the voter ruled we should go to the opposition” – only to join the coalition the following month.

THIS, then, is the backdrop against which Barak’s reputation faces its most potent challenge ever, as paparazzi photos suggest that he visited financier, philanthropist, and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse in 2016.

No one in Israel thinks Barak saw Epstein in the context of the latter’s felonies, but all assume he was there in the context of Epstein’s multimillion-dollar contributions to the Wexner Foundation, which last decade gave Barak more than $2 million for “research” whose nature has never been made public.

Barak’s protestations in July that he had long severed his ties with Epstein are, judging by the polls, immaterial. What matters is that what he hoped would be a grand comeback impresses hardly 5% of the electorate, and that loud though it is, the old warrior’s latest battle cry is, in all likelihood, his last hurrah.

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