Tel Aviv — Overnight, he went from leader of Israel’s most illustrious left-wing party to an appendage of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. What next for Ehud Barak?
Since his January 17 break with Israel’s Labor Party — taking that once mighty, now shriveled faction down yet one more peg by his departure — the retired general and former prime minister is voicing high hopes for the new party he has founded with fellow Labor Party defectors.
But most observers see Ha’atzmaut — or Independence, as he has dubbed it — as nothing but a temporary vehicle for Barak until he makes his next move.
“This is just a survival tactic; I don’t see the strategy,” said Gideon Rahat, a Hebrew University political scientist and expert on political parties.
Most agree that by leaving the Labor Party, which he led, before it left him and committing himself to stay with the right-wing government led by Netanyahu, Barak has significantly strengthened Netanyahu’s hand. Four other Labor Party Knesset members followed Barak into his new party, and the guarantee of the new party’s continued presence as part of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition strengthens the coalition’s survival, even if the remaining Labor Party members go into opposition, as expected.
Barak’s earlier personal and political background offered little hint that things would someday come to this juncture. The product of an archetypal socialist-Zionist upbringing — he was born on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon in 1942 — Barak went into politics after an illustrious military career with firm Labor Party roots.
Among other things, Barak was an architect of the 1976 Operation Entebbe, in which passengers on a flight hijacked by Palestinian terrorists were rescued from Uganda. He went on to share the distinction, (with his close friend Nechemiah Cohen), of being Israel’s most decorated soldier. Barak’s army career culminated in a four-year stint, starting in 1991, as chief of staff.
It was the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin who brought Barak into politics soon after his 1995 discharge. Rabin reportedly hoped Barak would become his successor. Barak became foreign minister in the interim government after Rabin’s assassination, and then served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, during which time he led the unilateral withdrawal from South Lebanon and tried to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians at the Camp David summit. That effort failed spectacularly at Camp David in 2000, amid mutual recriminations. The second intifada, which soon followed, damaged Barak’s image in the eyes of many Israelis, as they associated him with a discredited peace process.
Since Barak’s return to politics in 2004, the left has become increasingly uncomfortable with him. He was immensely successful in business during his absence from politics, and the media drew much attention to his reported love for extravagance. This was often reported alongside his seeming lack of interest in the economic troubles of Labor’s working-class voters and the party’s left-wing social agenda. Barak’s spending habits made news most memorably in 2009, when the State Comptroller’s office revealed that he had spent $128,000 of state money during a visit by him and his entourage to the Paris Air Show — compared to $33,000 that was spent the previous year.
Criticism of Barak has been especially intense over his involvement in approving Israeli Jewish settlement-building projects in the occupied West Bank and his role in the Gaza military operation of 2008–2009. Much of the left, including lawmakers from Labor, opposed his decision to enter Netanyahu’s coalition after the 2009 general election and have since scorned him for failing to push forward the peace process.
In recent months, the left’s political distaste toward Barak has grown to personal distaste toward him felt by many across the political spectrum. “Lately he is perceived as a person who has very low emotional intelligence; he is perceived as a person who doesn’t know how to deal with people, but doesn’t care,” said pollster Camil Fuchs, a Tel Aviv University statistician.
But dislike him as it may, the Israeli public still reveres Barak’s defense expertise. “They don’t trust Barak at all, but they trust his ability to be minister of defense, his capability as a soldier,” Fuchs said. He is particularly seen as an asset in the event of a possible strike on Iran, as a level-headed strategist who will back such a plan in the right circumstances and as the only politician familiar with all the plans. “They trust Netanyahu and Barak to deal with this problem,” Fuchs said.
Defense and public opinion expert Yehuda Ben-Meir, senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a former deputy foreign minister, says this highly limited trust will not be enough to make Ha’atzmaut a viable electoral party. A string of opinion polls indicates that if elections were held now, the faction would shrink to three of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
Ben-Meir thinks that talk of a future for Ha’atzmaut isn’t serious. “Realizing he’s got no popularity, he’s using the fact that he knows defense, he’s smart and has a certain image around the world to set up his place in Likud,” Ben Meir said. Ha’atzmaut is just a temporary vehicle to get Barak to the next election, he predicted. At that point, Netanyahu will give him a safe spot high on the Likud’s Knesset election list; Barak will become a Likudnik, said Ben Meir.
The benefit to Netanyahu will be respectability abroad with Barak at his side. It’s an asset he is keenly aware of, with his current foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, being persona non grata with some foreign leaders. In fact, to take up the slack in Washington and other capitals, Barak sometimes takes on the role of de facto foreign minister already.
Fuchs sees two other possibilities come the next election. One is that Barak will disappear from the political scene; the other is that he will not serve in the Knesset on any party’s list, but Netanyahu will nevertheless appoint him defense minister (a scenario that Israeli law permits).
Rahat offers two other possibilities: Barak could end up at the top of Likud, elevated by Netanyahu to become his “inheritor”; or he could end up joining, or even leading, Kadima, the large centrist opposition party. “Ideologically he’s Kadima, pragmatic in terms of security, and more Kadima than Likud in terms of social policy. But politics is personal, so it is hard to predict,” Rahat said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org