Realigning the Left

Barak’s return to politics provides the Center and Center-Left with the chance to unseat Netanyahu.

July 1, 2019 09:26
4 minute read.
Realigning the Left

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak gestures after delivering a statement in Tel Aviv, Israel June 26, 2019. (photo credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

The Labor Party is choosing its leader Tuesday, but really, who cares? Nobody seriously believes that either Amir Peretz, Itzik Shmuli or Stav Shaffir is going to be able to turn around the disastrous state of affairs (only six seats in the last elections!) left behind by Avi Gabbay, the party’s unlamented outgoing leader.

The real boost for the Center-Left came with Ehud Barak’s announcement last week that he was returning to the political battleground. While Gabbay was going around saying the Left had forgotten what it meant to be Jewish, Barak was maintaining a steady stream of targeted, pungent criticism against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At times it felt as if Barak’s Facebook posts and tweets were the sole opposition to Netanyahu’s government.

Proving, like US President Donald Trump, that social media is not just a medium for millennials and Generation X, the 77-year-old Barak has used carefully crafted tweets and well-scripted short videos to consistently eviscerate Netanyahu over the past couple of years. Nothing has been off limits for Barak’s caustic criticisms: from the prime minister’s determined subversion of the legal system in his increasingly desperate attempts to avoid indictment, to Netanyahu’s steady chipping away at the framework of Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.

Of course, again as Trump has shown, mastery of social media does not by itself make a person fit for high office. But at least it shows fight, which is something that was sadly lacking among the mainstream opposition to Netanyahu in the past elections. Barak’s entrance into the ring will inject an urgency and vibrancy into the campaign to unseat a prime minister who has spent so long in power he can no longer distinguish between his own narrow personal interests (i.e., staying out of jail) and those of the country he is supposed to lead.

In his press conference announcing his return, Barak pulled no punches, arguing that “this is not time to be on the fence.... Netanyahu’s regime, with its radical messianic zealots and its corrupt leadership, must be toppled.” This is exactly the line of attack the opposition needs to take: The vast majority of Israelis do not want a government in which Bezalel (“I want a halachic state”) Smotrich is a cabinet minister, while even former Likud ministers such as Limor Livnat have tired of the prime minister’s incessant attacks on the legal system.

Barak, though, is tainted goods. His own term as prime minister – after defeating Netanyahu in the 1999 elections and driving him out of politics for a number of years – was short-lived and not fondly remembered. Although he made the courageous – and correct – decision to withdraw the IDF from southern Lebanon and end the bloodletting on Israel’s northern border, his attempts to reach a final-status peace agreement with Yasser Arafat ended in total failure and the unleashing of the Second Intifada.

Following his loss to Ariel Sharon in 2001, Barak retired from political life, and when he did return to lead Labor again, the party scored its worst showing (before April’s catastrophic failure), winning only 13 seats. And then, to rub salt into Labor’s wounds, Barak split the part in 2012 so he could remain as defense minister in a government headed by Netanyahu. Indeed, among some circles in the Left, Barak is as popular as Netanyahu himself.

So it’s highly unlikely that Barak’s latest return to politics will end up with him once more forcing Netanyahu out of the prime ministerial residence in Jerusalem. But Barak does give the Center-Left a chance to realign for the coming elections and overcome the right-wing plus haredi (ultra-Orthodox) bloc of parties that has been running the country since 2015.

THE KEY to success will be for the Left – from Labor on the Center-Left to Barak’s as yet unnamed party and then Meretz further to the Left – to form one party, just as Blue and White is a combination of three separate parties. With all the left-of-center parties running as one Knesset list, no votes will be lost by these parties competing for the same voters and one of the parties (Meretz? Labor?) failing to cross the electoral threshold.

At the same time, with the creation of a clear center-left grouping, Blue and White will be free to concentrate on capturing the votes of the Center and, crucially, “steal” three or four seats from Likud voters who simply have had enough of Netanyahu. Such a constellation has the real potential to bring an end to the past 10 years of Netanyahu’s premiership.

Which, actually, is where the Labor leadership elections do come into play. Given the exceedingly bad blood between Peretz and Barak (Barak unceremoniously ousted Peretz from the Defense Ministry in 2007), the chances of an alignment between Labor and Barak’s party will best be served by a victory for Shmuli or Shaffir. Tuesday’s vote for Labor leader may become more significant than previously imagined.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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