In a preelection interview many years ago, I once noted that Ehud Barak had in
his Knesset office a gold statuette of a horse rearing up, about to gallop off.
It was given to the then-Labor Party leader when he was still IDF chief of
General Staff. He seemed during that year, 1998, “a bit like that golden steed;
poised to take off, without actually gathering speed,” I wrote.
I recalled that interview, and that symbolic horse, and thought that perhaps it
wasn’t preparing to gallop after all but readying itself to bring its hooves
crashing down to the ground, no matter who was in the way.
Barak was not
happy with the original image, telling me that he was going places. And indeed
he did manage to get elected prime minister in May 1999 in the direct elections
against his sometimes- friend, sometimes-nemesis Binyamin Netanyahu, but he
didn’t manage to stay long in the saddle.
For sure, he preferred my
comparison of him to a stallion frozen in time to the image the Hebrew press was
playing up and which came back to haunt him again last week when he announced in
a surprise political maneuver that he and four Labor MKs were quitting Labor and
creating their own faction, Atzmaut, Independence. Yediot Aharonot
published an unflattering photo of the defense minister, with his tongue
sticking out, and the banner headline: “Ehud barah.”
No matter where he
goes, and how he gets there, someone is going to remind Barak of the accusation
that he “fled” (barah) the site of the 1992 Tze’elim II disaster as chief of
General Staff, abandoning wounded soldiers in the field.
comptroller at the time, Miriam Ben-Porat, ruled there was no basis to press
charges, but the phrase stuck with Barak just as surely as his title of former
chief of General Staff.) Last week, the term was again bandied around in the
Knesset no less than in the media.Yisrael Hayom
, associated rightly or
wrongly with Prime Minister Netanyahu, was more flattering, declaring the move
“Barak’s turnaround,” in a play of words recalling the “mahapach” when the Likud
surprised Labor by winning the 1977 elections.
One thing is for sure: It
was all about Barak. It was, from his point of view, a brilliant move designed
to call the bluff of the Labor ministers and MKs, including Isaac Herzog,
Avishay Braverman and Shelly Yacimovich, who constantly threatened to quit if
the party did not pull out of the coalition, and it means that Barak can keep
the Defense portfolio he adores.
All the media mentioned that the
maneuver, planned secretly, recalled the glory days of Barak and Netanyahu in
the early 1970s, when Barak was the commanding officer of the elite General
Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal) in which all three Netanyahu brothers
NO LESS predictably, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni decried not only
the move – which weakens her chances of entering the coalition or expediting the
next elections – but also the “IDF old boys” analogy with which she can never
compete (and instead of shrilly complaining about it, she would do better to
stress her own valuable assets as soon as her advisers help her find
Listening to anyone from Kadima berating Barak as an opportunist
raises a smirk. Kadima, after all, was formed in no less of a surprise maneuver
by Ariel Sharon, and has attracted MKs and candidates from a broad spectrum
united by something that Livni always calls “the Kadima way,” but has yet to
fully explain in a manner even most political analysts can understand, let alone
the average potential voter. A vote for Livni in the last elections was a vote
against Netanyahu rather than for any clear platform.
Instead of whining,
this is Livni’s chance to really attract Labor voters on their traditional
ground – centrist-to-left peacemaking policy and socioeconomic
The latter is another area abandoned by Barak in recent years.
There cannot be many of voting age who don’t know that the country’s first prime
minister David Ben-Gurion (after a not dissimilar maneuver, incidentally)
retired quietly to a modest kibbutz home in the Negev, while Barak resides in
the very far from humble Akirov Towers in Tel Aviv (and is mired in a scandal
about employing an illegal worker as a house cleaner).
to the “proletarian party” label? It might have been sold for profit like a
parcel of land on a once egalitarian kibbutz.
It was actually Barak who
coined the phrase “hazkena baprozdor,” the legendary old lady in the corridor,
talking of the shortage of hospital beds during a past election campaign. That
particular old lady would be dead of old age by now, if nothing else, but sadly
her daughter has taken her embarrassing place. Not that Barak seems to care
about her any more.
Nurses have been threatening to strike because of the
overflow of patients not just in the corridors but even in hospital dining
rooms. But the subject has been overshadowed by the politicking.
not even the first time that Barak had fashioned a new party for himself. In
1999, he created One Israel, together with Meimad and Gesher. The main remnant
of that period is the memory of the investigation into the party’s
Labor was left this time with a small Knesset faction of eight
members – divided, in true Labor Party style, into two camps – and a major
(The party debts, by the way, will probably be split between
Independence and Labor.) Now that the horse has galloped off into its personal
sunset, there is no point in locking the stable door, but a lot of cleaning and
sweeping needs to be done. It is Labor that needs to get rid of the bad smell.
The gimmick by Kadima MKs, spraying air freshener in the Knesset plenum, did not
bode well for a period of clean politics until the government finishes its
Many were eulogizing Labor as a lost cause after Barak switched
horses in midstream. It was depicted as the end of an era. Yediot
even printed a
“requiem in photos of the Labor Party.”
But in Israeli politics –
particularly in an age in which opportunism is par for the course – obituaries
should be prepared but not published.
Who, after all, thought that
Netanyahu and Barak would compete not once but twice to lead the country? How
did Amir Peretz, perceived as part of the problem with the way that Lebanon II
was handled, begin to make his comeback? And how did Amram Mitzna, a Labor Party
leader turned mayor of a small Negev town, come to be considered a possible
leader – again? Ditto Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer, possibly the man with the
most to lose from Barak’s strategic move.
Labor still has its natural
supporters in cities and on kibbutzim, among Jewish and Arab voters. To succeed,
it needs a new rider holding the reins and a clear direction. The fact that the
current government has a defense minister who, as prime minister, has already
failed once to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians (not for lack of
trying) and a foreign minister who doesn’t have anything nice to say about them
could work in its favor, a political gift horse.
Nothing in this
country’s political scene would surprise me, short of Ariel Sharon waking up
from his coma and returning to the race.
As for Barak, wherever he has
been and wherever he is heading, one thing is certain: He’s on an ego trip. No
wonder he rides roughshod.The writer is editor of
Jerusalem Post. firstname.lastname@example.org