Analysis: Are we ready for Barak - again?

Political comebacks have to prove to the public that they really and truly have changed.

ehud barak jpost298 88aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
ehud barak jpost298 88aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Political comebacks are tricky things. Just ask Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been trying to make a comeback for six years. First of all, you have to prove to a public that recently showed you the door that you really and truly have changed. Ehud Barak's announcement on Sunday that he is reentering the fray and running in the coming Labor leadership primary was a first step in setting a new style. Instead of the de rigueur press conference at Beit Sokolov, with a backdrop of blue and white flags and supporters cheering in the aisles, Barak - known as the Israeli prime minister who served for the shortest period in history - made do with a personal letter to party Secretary-General Eitan Cabel and a pager message to the political correspondents. Cue the new humble Ehud, the listening Barak. No more pomp and circumstance for him. Now he's going to tour the country, hold small meetings with party members and convince them that he's changed. But while those attempting a comeback want everyone to believe they've moved on, they don't want voters to forget altogether who they used to be. After all, if you weren't somebody in your past life, to what are you returning? That's why the key phrase in Barak's letter isn't the bit where he admits he became prime minister too early, but the last sentence: "Israel, the defense establishment and the IDF are going through a very rough time. I believe that I have the experience and the maturity to serve as the next defense minister of Israel." Or in other words: I've grown up, but all that crazy stuff I used to get up to in Sayeret Matkal and the Prime Minister's Office still counts for something. But hold on, isn't the primary about who will lead the Labor Party over the next couple of years? So why is his statement all of a sudden about the Defense Ministry? Here you have it, Barak's new spin. There may be, at present, five candidates in the ring, but Barak is already trying, with almost five more months still to go, to narrow down the field by telling Labor members that Israel needs a new Mr. Security and it's up to them to supply one. Seeing as Amir Peretz will never be taken seriously again as a defense minister, Ophir Paz-Pines says he doesn't want the job, and Danny Yatom will almost certainly pull out of the race to support his old commander in the Sayeret, that leaves only Ami Ayalon in the defense sweepstakes. Barak's not-too-subtle message to the voters: "Ayalon might have been a useful admiral and super Shin Bet chief, but you need a bit more time in politics before making a bid for the top jobs. Just look what happened to me when I jumped too early." According to the polls, Ayalon and Barak are already the front runners, although Paz-Pines is right behind and Peretz shouldn't be written off yet. But if the primaries are indeed to become a two-man race, the lines are already drawn. Ayalon together with his No.2 Avishai Braverman, both first-term MKs, present new leadership, fresh faces and fresh ideas, and they are currently leading in the polls. Barak's first two major supporters, ministers Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simhon, are the face of the party's old establishment with their respective organizations - Ben-Eliezer in the urban branches and Arab sector and Simhon in the moshavim. But will that be enough for Barak? The two most successful political comebackers were Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, both storming to victory after long years in the wilderness. Their new image wasn't enough. They both timed their returns to a period when the country was clamoring for a trustworthy old-timer to take over the reins from the failed amateurs. We are currently experiencing such a period, and Labor members will ultimately vote for the leader they believe can bring them back to power. But Barak was in office only six years ago; memories of his short, stormy term are still fresh. In addition, there's a fair chance that the Winograd Commission investigating the Lebanon War will widen its scope and place some of the blame for the situation on the northern border on Barak's hasty withdrawal in 2000. All his experience might then turn into liability. And a makeover won't be enough. And while we're on the subject of generals: a slight clarification to Sunday's analysis. The Jerusalem Post has been assured that, contrary to this writer's impression, the Prime Minister's Military Secretary, Maj.- Gen. Gadi Shamni, went through exactly the same passport control procedures upon returning from Thursday's Sharm e- Sheikh summit as the rest of the prime minister's entourage.