Burning Issues No. 20: Ehud Barak's comeback

ehud barak jpost298 88aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
ehud barak jpost298 88aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Burning Issues brings our best opinion writers to one podium, where they respond, in brief and in real time, to a question about one of the hottest news topics on the agenda. A link to the writer's most recent column appears after each post. Burning Issues 1-19: Last three: 2007 forecast, Iran and Russia, PA crisis and Israel.
Question #20
Former prime minister Ehud Barak launched his political comeback on Sunday, announcing his candidacy for Labor party chairman. Barak admitted that he had made mistakes in his previous tenure, citing his inexperience. "Talent, motivation and intelligence are not enough to lead this country," he said. Did Barak really change? What are his chances in Labor? Is he capable of winning another general election? Contributions by Jonathan Rosenblum, Elliot Jager, MJ Rosenberg, Gerald Steinberg, Larry Derfner, Amotz Asa-El, Daniel Doron and Isi Leibler. Larry Derfner: I think a lot of Israelis, even on the moderate Right, would be happy with Barak as defense minister - he does know the ins and outs of the military as well or better than anybody else in this country. But his stock as prime ministerial candidate has only gone down - if, until the summer war with Hizbullah, he was blamed for the intifada but credited for the pullout from Lebanon, now he is blamed for both. His likeability quotient has also gone down - if, as prime minister, he put Israelis off with his arrogance, since leaving office he has put them off with his arrogance and his greed. His instant standing as number one or number two contender for leadership of the Labor Party just shows how unbelievably low Labor has sunk. Rattling the Cage: A bigot called Bibi Isi Leibler: Ehud Barak is highly sophisticated, educated, and the most decorated soldier in the Israeli army. Under a strong prime minister he could well be an excellent defense minsiter. But he would make a disastrous prime minister. Failed prime ministers can learn from their mistakes and may, under exceptional circumstances, be granted a second opportunity to prove themselves. But probably as the worst prime minister in Israel's history, Ehud Barak would not qualify. He was responsible for the withdrawal from Lebanon in which the IDF was portrayed to the world as a defeated rabble fleeing from Hizbullah guerillas. That paved the way for the subsequent Hizbullah military build up on our borders and the recent Lebanon war debacle. Israelis will remember how, towards the end of his tenure, Barak collapsed under pressure. How he would make a policy statement in the morning and contradict himself by the afternoon. How, towards the end, when his government was at the point of collapse, he simply handed over the reins to Yossi Beilin whose team at Taba stunned the Palestinians by their largesse and willingness to accept virtually everything they demanded, providing the impression that Israel was unraveling. It is in Israel's national interest to see the re-emergence of a strong Labor Zionist party capable of forming a government or leading the opposition. Under the leadership of Ehud Barak, Labor would remain a marginalized party and probably sink into an even great morass. Give us leadership Amotz Asa-El: Ehud Barak has not changed. For one thing, people at retirement age don't change, and for another, had he changed he would have conceded he isn't good enough for the leadership roles he so much covets. Barak's failures as prime minister reflected first and foremost flaws of character and only then poor judgment, though that, too, he offered in abundance. His failure to consult with just about anyone on just about anything, even the sweeping concessions he made at Camp David including compromising sovereignty in Jerusalem, is likely to go down in history as one of the most spectacularly Bonopartistic farces ever produced by a democratically elected leader. Equally scandalous, if less remembered, was his cynical promise to devote himself to domestic issues, a promise he violated upon assuming office, as he dedicated himself exclusively to foreign and military issues, and altogether bizarre were so many of his appointments, from the controversial Yossi Sarid as education minister and the bookish Shlomo Ben-Ami as internal security minister to the legally untrained Yossi Beilin as justice minister and the media-shy David Ivri as ambassador to Washington. Barak's inability to keep intact anything, from the coalition to his own staff, itself a reflection of an appalling lack of political and social skills, pales in comparison with his failure to respond to the post-Camp David violence as effectively and resolutely as Ariel Sharon later did. At the same time, his announcement of deadlines for peace deals with Syria and the PA proved to lack any coordination with his prospective peace-partners, and attitude that reflects utter ignorance as well as downright charlatanism. For these reasons, Ehud Barak sustained the worst electoral defeat in Israeli history. Labor will be making the worst - and possibly last - mistake in its history if it restores him to its helm. Middle Israel: Who will be Jewish after we're nuked? (II) Gerald Steinberg: Ehud Barak's latest attempt to return to the Israeli political stage reflects the ongoing political upheaval after the Lebanon war during the summer. As the details of the debacle are exposed, including the failures of Olmert and Peretz, the contest to replace one or both with experienced military leaders will heat up. Barak is one of many possible replacements, although he faces strong competition in the Labor Party from other former IDF officers. With the focus on responding to Iran's nuclear weapon's program, Barak's long military experience will be more important than his brief stint as Prime Minister, during which he attempted to deal primarily with the death throes of the Oslo "peace process". But whether dealing with Iran or other issues, Barak, like any potential leader, must recognize the limits of his own knowledge, and consult widely before taking critical decisions. In this crucial dimension, there is no evidence of a dramatic change. A realistic strategy for peace Daniel Doron: The problem is not only "leadership". Like many Israelis (and there is the rub) Barak seems to believe that the problems afflicting Israel are mostly problems of leadership, and since he has overcome (or so he claims) some of his very pronounced managerial weaknesses he is now ready to lead us. But "leadership" is only one component of good government. Equally important, if not more, is a good system of government, a manageable government. The US has a fairly good system and it therefore succeeded even when its leadership was mediocre. Zionism had some great leaders, but Zionism failed in building a viable economy because its "great" leaders, like Ben-Gurion, followed the siren song of Socialism and established a system that has been not only dysfunctional but inevitably also became corrupt. So until Barak explains what kind of government he wants to lead voters better treat him with healthy skepticism. The triumphs and trials of reform Elliot Jager: It's anyone's guess whether Ehud Barak has really changed. Mine is: he hasn't. But it is a smart ploy to claim otherwise. I remember John Lindsay, the failed New York City mayor during the 1960s, did the same thing ("mistakes were made"), and managed to convince voters to give him another term. I would not discount Amir Peretz's chances of hanging on to the Labor leadership. The party's primary is months away, and in politics that's a lifetimes. Regardless of who wins the Labor leadership, I would not expect Labor to form the next government - Kadima will, I predict, but not under Ehud Olmert. Finally, let me say a bad word about Ehud Barak. He was a disastrous prime minister. We couldn't get rid of him soon enough. Why put us through a similar nightmare. Having said that, I'm not convinced he'd be a bad defense minister under a competent prime minister. Now, please, find us a competent prime minister. (The writer's Web site is www.elliotjager.com) Policy trumps presidential personality MJ Rosenberg: One of the positive aspects of Israeli politics is that people get second chances. In the United States, once you lose you are ancient history (except for Nixon). Barak's tenure as PM ended badly (actually it also began badly!). But there is a good chance that, as intelligent as he is, he learned from his blunders. A campaign is a good test. Is he still as arrogant as he used to be? If he is, if he still believes that he is smarter than everyone else, he will lose. But if he has changed, if the fact that he was patently not smarter than everyone else has sunk in, he could be a decent candidate. He came closer than anyone to reaching a deal with the Palestinians. His arrogance in dealing with them sunk Israel's best chance for peace in its history (his arrogance and Arafat's stupidity). So let's see if there is a "new Barak." Even the old Barak is better than the new or old Bibi, so let's see. But, if I had to predict, I'd say that his campaign goes nowhere especially with the more appealing Ami Ayalon out there. In Washington: Much ado about nothing Jonathan Rosenblum: Let's see what Barak has done since he suffered the most massive defeat in Israeli history in 2001. He's made gobs of money, traveled abroad frequently, divorced his wife, built a magnificent home, and totally absented himself from Israeli public affairs. He has not contributed one idea on how Israel might address any of the threats it faces. In addition, the one concrete "achievement" of his term as prime minister - the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon - appears more and more doubtful in light of Hizbullah's subsequent build up and last summer's war. Will he rise from the ashes to head the Labor Party? Unlikely. And if he does, it will be only serve to mark Labor's increasing irrelevancy. A time to hate