Politics: Defensive platform

Did Winograd spoil or salvage Ehud Barak's strategy to replace Amir Peretz on the way to the premiership?

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
If the Winograd Committee's 1,000-page interim report published two weeks ago and the 200 pages of testimony released Thursday could be summarized in one recommendation, it would be that Israel must have leaders who know how to protect the country. That message would presumably play into the hands of former prime minister Ehud Barak ahead of his May 28 Labor Party leadership race against four candidates with less political, diplomatic and - most importantly - military experience. And, in fact, that has been Barak's strategy since the beginning of his campaign. He purposely remained silent since he announced that he was "running for defense minister" on January 7 with a tersely worded fax to party secretary-general Eitan Cabel. Barak had hoped that following Winograd's publication, a wave of supporters would come to him, proclaiming him the messiah for the problems in the IDF identified by the report and sweeping him back to the Labor chairmanship, the Defense Ministry and, eventually, the Prime Minister's Office. But something spoiled Barak's strategy: The Winograd Report was much harsher than he expected. Instead of slapping Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on the wrist and telling him that he needed a more experienced defense minister than Amir Peretz, the committee members called Olmert a failure and may have dealt him a deathblow. Suddenly, Olmert became a pariah and Barak's closeness to him became a liability. "He had to find a different strategy," a source close to Barak said. "He wanted to use the Defense Ministry as a platform to build his image among the general public, the same way that Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu used the Finance Ministry. He is not ready for elections now, because the public still has animosity toward him, but after a few months in the Defense Ministry, the public could fall in love with him again." That's why Barak called a press conference on Kibbutz Sdot Yam near Caesarea on Tuesday, ahead of a meeting he had planned with kibbutz members. He used the event to distance himself from Olmert in the minds of Labor voters by calling upon him to quit, while announcing that he wanted to be defense minister for an "interim period," so he could still get at least a few months in the Defense Ministry to rehabilitate himself in the minds of the general public. "In the interim period, until the formation of a new government or the setting of an election date, in light of the deep, sensitive and urgent challenges Israel is facing, I will be ready - if conditions permit it - to contribute my experience as well as I can for the deep changes that need to be made in the IDF," Barak said. He called for Olmert's ouster and made clear that he wanted a different leader to take over Kadima, but moments later said, "It would neither be right nor democratic for me to express an opinion or have an impact on who should lead another party." BARAK'S POLITICAL opponents immediately pounced, accusing him of trying to manipulate the voters with ambiguity, vagueness and hypocrisy. They said his attempt to please all the people at the same time backfired, because he reverted to "the old Ehud Barak," who was often criticized when he was prime minister for making convoluted statements that required deciphering and for changing his mind at a dizzying pace. They added that the improvised location of the press conference - with bored children eating ice cream, and stray dogs scurrying in the backdrop - hurt Barak's attempt to paint himself as a professional. One Labor leadership contender predicted that the seaside kibbutz would be remembered as the place where Barak sowed the seeds of his own downfall by opening his mouth prematurely. Barak's associates admitted that he would have preferred to avoid the press until after the primary. But they said it was worth it to temporarily sacrifice his image in the general public for the quick tactical goal of appeasing Labor voters angry at Olmert. A source close to Barak said that by saying he would begin efforts to overthrow Olmert immediately if he won the race, he eliminated the need to elaborate on his plans until after the election and he temporarily "shifted the hot potato of toppling the prime minister back to Kadima." Another element that Barak considered was the timing of the press conference for a slow news day when he would get good press. He considered speaking the following day at a United Kibbutz Movement event in Ramat Efal, but he decided against it because the other Labor candidates were to speak at the event and he wanted the stage to himself. Barak wanted Labor members to hear his message on the nightly news and then forget about him until the primary. He knew that State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss would help by publishing a lengthy report the following day. And he purposely timed the press conference for before the Winograd Committee released the transcripts, which he knew would grab the public's attention and the headlines in the Friday papers. So the Winograd Committee that Barak was counting on to help him get elected might end up helping him after all.