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Ehud Barak – the comeback leader

  • Paula
“The state of Israel is facing the total dissolution of its democracy,” says former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “This is a strategic threat no less than the Iranian threat.” This is the alarming opinion of the man who occupied the country’s top seat from 1999 to 2001.
by PAULA SLIER | Jul 11, 2019

This 77-year-old Israeli general and former leader of the Labour Party is referring to none other than the leadership of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Declaring it to be either “the state of Netanyahu or the state of Israel”, Barak has announced a comeback. His political return is plastered across election posters now lining many of the major highways in Israel.

The former defence minister says he can no longer sit and watch as Netanyahu destroys Israel, whether it be through, as Barak claims, his attempts to fight corruption charges, undermine democracy, or radicalise institutions.

The good news for Barak is that he’s regarded by many Israelis as a leader of equal stature to Netanyahu. Among those who’ve come forward to express their support for him is Yitzhak Rabin's granddaughter, Noa Rothman.

But the latest polls show that his newly formed Israel Democratic Party won’t cross the electoral threshold if it runs alone in the 17 September election. Barak needs coalition partners.

The most obvious choice would be his former party, which desperately needs an injection of credibility and political weight.

April’s election results were the worst showing for the Labour party in its history. A party that had ruled Israel for decades received only six out of 120 Knesset (parliament) seats. Former Sderot mayor and former head of the country’s national trade union, Amir Peretz, was recently re-elected to head the party. He headed Labour from 2005 to 2007.

Peretz is optimistic, declaring that if the left-wing centrist parties unite, they can oust Netanyahu. He believes Labour can realistically receive 15 seats in the next election.

As for co-operating with Barak, Peretz says that “every potential political bond will be considered based on its prospects for widening our block and defeating Netanyahu”.

But let’s not forget that 12 years ago, Barak fired Peretz via fax from his post as defence minister. Still, in the overriding “anyone but Bibi [Netanyahu]” furore, casting past rivalries aside seems a small price to pay.

It’s not just Peretz who needs to forgive Barak. In January 2011, Barak abandoned Labour to found a new, now defunct, political party. The Independence Party, as it was called, lasted less than two years. It’ll be interesting to see whether Labour supporters are willing to forget that.

But, aren’t there enough centrist parties already? What exactly does Barak’s new party offer that’s different?

Netanyahu’s Likud voters are unlikely to support Barak, and the Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid already has too many leaders.

It wasn’t so long ago that Gantz, who was barely a colonel when Barak was chief of staff of the Israeli army, was the hope of the centre-left. The 35 Knesset seats garnered by the young party in April was unprecedented. There’s no advantage for it to join forces with Barak – and it’s unlikely to. The concern is whether they’ll lose seats to him. Although all the recent headlines in Israel have been focused on Barak and not Gantz, the latter’s party, alongside Netanyahu’s Likud, remains one of the country’s two largest political forces. Gantz will continue to believe the competition is between him and Netanyahu only, but is it?

Barak is said to be considering the possibility of forming a centre-left electoral bloc with Labour, Meretz, and former Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni.

After resigning from politics in February, Livni is now said to be considering a comeback and running as part of a left-wing bloc, but only if an alliance is formed between Labour and Barak’s new Israel Democratic Party.

Livni’s Hatnuah party ran on a joint ticket with Labour in 2015, but the former chief of the party, Avi Gabbay, abandoned the partnership in the run-up to April’s election. Livni decided not to run at all, saying she didn’t want to risk splitting the left-wing vote among so many parties as it would result in some failing to cross the electoral threshold, and their votes being wasted. That’s the concern once again. Barak just brings a new party to the fold, and unless a large, left-wing block is created, it’s unlikely they’ll topple “King” Bibi from office.

There’s another concern about Barak. As much as he purports to be against Netanyahu now, he could change overnight, as he has done before. When he broke away from Labour in 2011, it was because he wanted to keep his position as defence minister and not join the opposition. Israelis are asking themselves – rightly so – whether, if Netanyahu somehow wins the 17 September election and offers Barak the chance to become defence minister again under his leadership, will Barak bite?

And then, the final concern is what his views are politically. After meeting with Nitzan Horowitz, the new leader of the left-wing Meretz party, and the first openly gay political leader in Israeli history, Meretz officials said there was “no breakthrough”. They complained that “Barak has a problem with Arabs and others” among Israel’s non-Arab population that would prevent Meretz from being able to run with him.

Barak’s premiership lasted only a year and seven months, during which time he went further than anyone else in trying to reach peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians, failing in both attempts. His term ended with the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada.

The right-wing bloc is also considering its options. Still bruised from the wasting of at least seven Knesset seats in April’s election because of the proliferation of right-wing parties, it is adamant about avoiding the same situation again. One of the most important considerations will be that made by former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked after she and former Education Minister Naftali Bennett formed a new party at the end of last year that failed to cross the electoral threshold. At the time of writing, Shaked was mulling which party to join. New right-wing political alliances are expected to emerge in the next few days.

Netanyahu is painfully aware that he might not do so well come September, and he is also weighing his options. His pre-trial hearing is fast approaching, and now with Barak in the fray, the field amongst those campaigning to unseat Israel’s nearly-longest serving prime minister just got a little more crowded.

The deadline for submitting party lists (who’s running with who) to the central elections committee is 1 August. That’s two-and-a-half weeks from now, which in Israeli politics can be a lifetime.

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