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The news that Labor leader Ehud Barak was fighting many in his own party to join the government led by Binyamin Netanyahu should not have been surprising. The two have been either side of the same coin for a very long time. Sometimes the coin lands on heads, sometimes tails, but it doesn't change into some other currency.
In fact, they are so similar that when I profiled them separately several years ago - Netanyahu when he was the unexpected winner of the 1996 elections and Barak when he was gearing up for his shot at the top in 1998 - friends, colleagues and political foes described both in the same terms. Netanyahu is, according to general opinion, someone who focuses on the target and heads straight for it. Ditto Barak. It was the style of the IDF's elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, known as Sayeret Matkal.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin once told me: "[The Direct Election Law] is apparently aimed just at veterans of Sayeret Matkal. It's not by chance they [Netanyahu and Barak] are so similar. The cynicism, the cool-headedness and the aim of winning at any price."
Motti Morell, at the time when he directed Netanyahu's electoral advertising campaign, said Netanyahu "knows exactly what he wants and he goes straight there." Morell has since conducted campaigns for other premier-wannabes, reflecting the fickle nature of both politics and the world of PR, but this trait of Netanyahu's remains undeniable.
Even Barak has said of his old army comrade: "He is very focused and decisive. He is practical despite a strong dogmatic ideology."
Barak's (many) political opponents - not to mention the Hebrew press - have tended in recent years to portray Barak as the master zigzagger.
The public has repeatedly been treated to recordings of Barak, just after the elections, announcing in that phrase of politicians everywhere in the democratic world: "The people have had their say..." followed by a statement that Labor (or what's left of it after it came crashing down to just 13 MKs) would sit in the opposition during Netanyahu's government.
It turns out Barak was not zigzagging. He was, like a commando under fire, running a ragged course to dodge the bullets on the way to accomplishing his mission.
Dan Margalit, an architect who is used to being mistaken for the journalist of the same name, became a close friend of Barak during their student days at the Hebrew University in the late 1960s. He told me 10 years ago that whatever Barak did, he would always excel at it. "It was obvious from an early stage in his army career that he would one day be chief of staff. When he was just a lieutenant, the head of Sayeret Matkal said he would make it to the top post. It was also clear he would go into politics after the army, because he wants to have an influence on the country."
It is obvious that Barak now thinks that he can have the greatest impact from a government seat rather than the backbench. But there's no need for naivety. His concern for his own standing is equally important to him as the good of the country he has fought to defend.
The man who is determined to remain defense minister has something of a Napoleon complex. When he assumed his position at Labor's helm at the end of the 1990s, he threw decades of proud Zionist history out of the window of opportunity and refashioned the party under his One Israel label. It was an early sign that what was most important was that he be No. 1. He has twice remade the party in his own (inflated) image and twice brought it crashing down. But by zigzagging around political minefields, he has survived.
A friend once summed up her election dilemma as "To Bibi or not to Bibi." Barak obviously asked himself the same question and answered himself (or typically took the advice of those who told him what he wanted to hear) that it would be better to opt for Netanyahu at the risk of getting a bit burned on the way, than to end up political toast in the opposition. The doves and the hawks can both fly the coop as far as he's concerned, as long as he is still the rooster heralding another political day.
Talk of being able to rehabilitate the party from the opposition is not so convincing anyway when the party lacks a clear ideological platform. When he initially discarded the Labor label, the ideology got lost too. Barak is not concerned with whether the 79-year-old Labor Party will last, but whether he can hang on. He is interested in security issues - his own job security first and foremost.
BARAK HAS known Netanyahu a very long time. In the early 1970s, Barak was the commanding officer of Sayeret Matkal in which all three Netanyahu brothers served. It was Barak who chose Bibi over Yoni Netanyahu for the 1971 rescue mission of a hijacked Sabena plane, in which the future Likud leader was wounded. He "consoled" Yoni, with whom he was much closer, telling him there would be future operations in which he would take part. After Yoni Netanyahu was killed in the famed Entebbe rescue in 1976, it was Barak who mediated when tensions developed between the Netanyahus and Yoni's girlfriend, Bruria, who was Barak's neighbor.
The two have clearly been through a lot together. And both are members of the relatively small "former prime minister" club which helps them understand each other.
Barak and Netanyahu even sound like one another, often using the same terms to criticize the media (which admittedly has not been kind to either). "When the press attacks Bibi, it is seen by the Right as proving its point and strengthening his image as underdog; but when the media criticizes me, my audience - which is a media consumer - accepts it as being true, and as a result feels disappointed. So, the media really harm me, but really help Bibi," Barak explained to me when he was first aiming to become PM.
Parliamentary reporters once even spotted the two men wearing the same tie on the same day: "He's obviously copying me," said Netanyahu when it was pointed out. Neither is famed for his sense of humor, although both are good at one-liners.
It remains to see which of them has the last laugh: Netanyahu, who might just have managed to bring Barak into the government as he had called for all along, or Barak, who despite losing the elections and even witnessing the colossal downfall of his own party, seems destined to remain at least a little longer in a position of power - bang on target.
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