Middle Israel: Ehud Barak: A political eulogy

Hopefully, Barak’s departure will prove a milestone on the road back to social sensitivity, ideological sincerity and political humility.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak _311 (photo credit: Reuters/Blaire Gable)
Defense Minister Ehud Barak _311
(photo credit: Reuters/Blaire Gable)
Like the biblical Ehud, ours, too, was brave.
Ehud Barak may not have ripped an enemy king’s belly with a double-edged dagger “haft after blade,” but like Ehud Ben- Gera he too was no stranger to a long day’s battle, a sleepless night’s ambush, and an enemy landscape’s menace and chill.
And like his biblical namesake, our Ehud never tired of surprising – one morning a hit-man in a wig, the next a mechanic barging into a hijacked airplane, one evening seceding from his own party, and the next, while all expect a tactical outflanking, embarking instead on a strategic retreat, or whatever it was that we have witnessed this week.
Then again, unlike his biblical namesake, whose military victories generated 80 years of peace, our Ehud’s political career enjoyed not one day of quiet. Worse, the man who has so rightly earned a place of honor in IDF annals as a daring commando will forever be synonymous with political dilettantism, tragedy and farce.
THE DILETTANTISM was in his statecraft.
Barak wanted to be a peacemaker, but having previously spent decades ordering people around it never crossed his mind that peace involves two parties.
That is how, to everyone’s astonishment, his announcements in 1999 of deadlines for peace deals with Hafez Assad and Yasser Arafat later proved to have been made without any previous dialogue, even indirectly, between him and either of the two. Barak then arrived personally for talks with Syria even though his interlocutor was only the foreign minister, a diplomatic asymmetry which any beginner statesman would immediately detect and avoid.
Having emerged from his Syrian misadventure empty-handed Barak proceeded to his Palestinian fiasco, whereby what started off as the peace of the brave ended up as the war of the suicides. Barak’s consequent electoral trouncing by Ariel Sharon, the worst in Israeli history, thus sealed a brief but eventful stint as a statesman.
All this was, to be sure, tragic enough, but the consistently tragic strain in Barak’s political career was not about statecraft but in the realm of ideology.
The kibbutznik who won the backing of thousands with an impassioned vow to look after “the old woman at the end of the corridor in the Nahariya governmental hospital” soon proved to care little for domestic issues in general, and for social inequality in particular. First he dedicated his time almost entirely to defense and foreign affairs, and then he nestled in glitzy skyscrapers from where the working class that his social-democratic party pretended to represent seemed even smaller than his integrity.
The farce was in Barak’s handling of people.
Blessed with the social skills of a bat, Barak managed to alienate nearly anyone who worked with him, from aides, colleagues and activists to generals, ministers and spin doctors. Having learned nothing and forgotten nothing, the man who as prime minister made bizarre appointments, from Shlomo Ben-Ami the intellectual as internal security minister to confrontational Yossi Sarid as education minister while keeping the Bank of Israel without a governor for months, managed a decade on to fight with one IDF chief before appointing one that was rejected by regulators, and in the interim installing a temporary IDF chief, thus tinkering with the most sensitive office under his jurisdiction as if it had been a toy.
All this, of course, is besides his shrinking of Labor’s following to its smallest size ever, a mere one tenth of the electorate, and then also splitting in half its Knesset faction. That Barak was a political disaster is therefore indisputable. The question is why? Was it merely his unique character or was there something else to all this underperformance? Well, there indeed was.
TWO THINGS inspired Barak’s political career: His profession and the zeitgeist.
The profession, military commander, is unique here in its political presence.
Nowhere else in the free world is the legislature so swamped with retired generals. In Britain thoughts of, say, Bernard Montgomery leading Britain doubtfully ever crossed one sane mind. Yes, Eisenhower and de Gaulle were career generals who became effective national leaders, but they were the exceptions. The rule is that generals rarely reach Western politics and even more rarely do they become defense minister and commander- in-chief.
In the US, while appointing George Marshall secretary of defense in 1950, Congress said it was an exception and then stated: “This Act is not to be construed as approval by the Congress of continuing appointments of military men to the office of Secretary of Defense in the future. It is hereby expressed as the sense of the Congress that after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved.”
And indeed, while Colin Powell and Alexander Haig were secretaries of state, no postwar general was US secretary of defense.
Why? Because when a general oversees the chief of staff he becomes the de facto chief of staff, while the public loses its oversight of the military and the nominal chief of staff becomes disgruntled, frustrated and dangerous.
This basic wisdom is lost on us here. We have had too many generals in politics generally, and as ministers of defense in particular.
Finally, there was the zeitgeist.
Ehud Barak was the quintessential product of Israel’s post-67 arrogance. He really thought, and probably still thinks, he is a lot smarter than all the people around him, and that they should each be thrown his little bone, for this one a pompous title and for that a small budget, so they are all kept away from Ehud Barak while he runs things – alone, swiftly, ingeniously, brilliantly and, needless to say, surprisingly.
Such was the era that was personified by Barak’s alter ego Moshe Dayan. It was a bad era, one of bluster, bravado, hypocrisy and cynicism of the sort later displayed by another former chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, now also on his way to our political dustbin.
It is time this era came to an end. Hopefully, Barak’s departure will prove a milestone on the road back to social sensitivity, ideological sincerity and political humility.