Politics: Silence isn't golden

Barak's mistake was keeping silent when he entered the Defense Ministry, a post he could have utilized to preach about how he was making the country safer.

Barak grin 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Barak grin 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago has been performing a successful revue for more than six months with the title "Between Barack and a Hard Place." Their show spoofs the presidential run of Barack Obama, the Illinois senator who is running a distant second in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination and who has been criticized by his opponents for not making his views sufficiently clear. But it could just as easily have been referring to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has not gained on the front-runner in the polls in Israel, opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Barak, like Barack, has kept some of his views a secret, and their reluctance to be more forthcoming has not helped them win more support. The similarities, however, end there. Obama is a fresh face running a campaign centered on bashing the failures of the Bush administration. Barak is in charge of carrying out Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's policies as his defense minister, and even if he highlighted Olmert's failures, it wouldn't change the fact that the Labor leader was chosen as Israel's worst ever prime minister in a poll of Israelis that ran in Ma'ariv on Yom Kippur eve. THE HARD places that Barak is in are the Defense Ministry and Labor chairmanship - two jobs that seemingly contradict each other. In the latter, he is supposed to be pressing for concessions to the Palestinians in the interest of peace; but in the former, he must prevent steps that could intensify the security situation. To his credit, Barak has made a point of acting more like a defense minister than a politician. His strategists believe that in the long run, the public's respect for him will grow when they see him acting professionally to keep the country safe. "The press sees Barak as positioning himself on Olmert's right, to win support from the center, but the fact is he is doing the opposite of what makes sense for him politically," a source close to Barak said. "The easiest thing for him to do would be to support the Annapolis summit, and then when it fails say that he could have handled it better. Instead, he's doing his job and ensuring that security considerations will be taken into account. He is not thinking through political glasses. He is above that." Barak's associates take credit for Olmert's recent decisions to pursue a guarantee from the Palestinians that they will recognize Israel as a Jewish state, to seek Syrian participation at the summit and to rule out the formation of a tripartite Israeli-Palestinian-American committee that would judge whether the road map was being implemented. POLITICIANS ON the Left who backed Barak are upset that he has competed with Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman to restrain Olmert from the right, instead of pushing him leftward. Peace Now secretary-general Yariv Oppenheimer, who endorsed Barak in the Labor primary, has faced off against him on issues like cutting off electricity in the Gaza Strip and the Defense Ministry's reluctance to remove illegal settlement outposts. "I knew when I supported him that he wasn't the ideal candidate of the peace camp," Oppenheimer said. "But he is still the best candidate Labor can put up for prime minister, despite what he has done as defense minister." Yediot Aharonot's satire page mocked Barak's rightward shift last week, with the headline: "This time the Shin-Bet isn't taking chances - Olmert's protection tightened for his meeting with Barak." Whether Barak shifted to the Right for political or professional reasons, the move should have gained him support among thousands of Kadima voters looking for a new political home. Instead, polls have shown him stagnating at best and falling at worst, perhaps even winning fewer mandates than his much-maligned predecessor, Amir Peretz. SO WHY is Israel's most decorated soldier ever not marching forward in the polls? His ally, Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel, answered the question on Israel Radio by downplaying the polls, as politicians tend to do when they don't go their way. "People also asked why Barak wasn't rising in 1999, but he sure rose when it mattered," Cabel said of the year Barak won the premiership. Privately, however, Cabel and other Labor officials said Barak's impotence in the polls was caused by his policy of silence. "Barak got confused between not talking to the press and not talking at all - it's different," Cabel said candidly. Keeping tight-lipped and avoiding the press was a successful strategy during the Labor leadership race, because it avoided upsetting Labor voters who could potentially disagree with him, and it corrected his image as a leader who spoke too much but did not accomplish enough. Barak's mistake was maintaining his silence when he entered the Defense Ministry, a post he could have utilized as a pulpit to preach to the public about how he was using his experience to make the country a safer place. Instead of displaying his bravery to Israel's enemies, he showed cowardice by avoiding the media, his own perceived enemy, which persuaded the public that he had something to hide. LABOR OFFICIALS said Barak has recently changed his strategy. They said he has made a point of speaking more openly in public appearances and releasing lengthy press releases with his statements at Labor faction and ministerial meetings. They vowed that his speech at Sunday's Labor central committee meeting would answer any remaining questions about what he stands for on the key issues of the day. But Barak's official spokesman, Ronen Moshe, said there has been no change in his strategy. He said Barak has been talking all along about every possible issue, from striking teachers to Syria, and from draft dodging to the division of powers between the Supreme Court and the Knesset. "A myth has been created that he doesn't talk," Moshe said. "But he gave interviews to Israel Radio and Army Radio about Rabin on his memorial day; he spoke clearly at the Saban Forum; and he will speak clearly on Sunday, too, in front of the press and the public." Still, defense correspondents continue to complain that Barak has canceled his predecessors' policy of allowing them to join him in weekly excursions into the field, where he surveys the readiness of military units. And political reporters who followed him to far-flung kibbutzim during his campaign have not even been granted five minutes to speak to him personally since he returned to public life in January. GOING BACK to the Second City, the media there have recently been bashing Brian Urlacher, the star linebacker of the floundering Chicago Bears National Football League team, for becoming increasingly terse, as the team has fallen from the Superbowl to the cellar. Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey wrote an impassioned plea to Urlacher that could just as easily have been written to Barak: "Part of the responsibility of being a team leader is talking with the media," Morrissey wrote. "It's not always fun. It's not always pleasant. Given a choice, some players would prefer to memorize the federal tax code. But it's how fans, the people who pay for the tickets that help pay for the players' salaries, get to know the team." Morrissey concluded by noting that, historically, nothing good comes out of a cold war with the media. He ended the column with the words: "It's not worth it, Brian." It's not worth it, Ehud.