While the media are focusing on the brutal, not to say stinking, maneuver carried out by Ehud Barak at the cost of a near rift in his party, the true victory for now is that of Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu. The two washouts who collapsed, one after the other, as prime minister due to identical character flaws have both returned to head their parties as political rivals. But though both are cut from the same cloth, their path to the top was different.
Barak leaped from his 31st-floor apartment straight into his party's convention, grabbing the microphone from Moshe Shahal's hand and shoving him away - just like in the good old days in Likud. He brought about Amir Peretz's ouster and his own election as party chairman. By contrast, Netanyahu, whose party declined to 12 Knesset seats after Ariel Sharon quit to found Kadima, worked diligently as head of the opposition and benefited from the chaos when Barak's maneuvers caused Tzipi Livni to move up the election.
Barak - "not friendly, not trendy, but a leader," according to one of his campaign billboards - was full of self-confidence, convinced that he would win the election. And he was shocked when in fact, Labor under his leadership came in fourth, whereas Likud and Kadima were the big winners and Netanyahu was asked to form the government. Barak, who looked on with longing as Netanyahu built a majority for himself with Avigdor Lieberman and his supporters, became the easiest catch, available at any price - as long as he received the defense portfolio.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu, more politically mature than Barak and aspiring to be prime minister of the entire nation, found himself pushed into a narrow right-wing government - the last thing the country needs right now, when Israel is being condemned all over the world as a perpetrator of crimes against humanity. Netanyahu first neutralized the Feiglins from his Knesset slate and then brought in veterans like Dan Meridor in order to get rid of the harsh impression created by Yisrael Beiteinu's entry into his government as the second largest party.
Lieberman, who looks like the bodyguard of a Russian oligarch and utters pearls of wisdom such as "Mubarak can go to hell" and threats to bomb the Aswan Dam, scared Bibi into thinking that a narrow government would spell the end of his career. So he looked around and saw Barak - so easy to get, even at the price of a rift in his party, even at the price of becoming the third-largest party in the government, just as long as he got the defense portfolio again. Bibi jumped at the bargain, in the hope that with Labor in the government no one would be able to accuse him of heading a narrow, extreme right-wing government. He did not care how many portfolios it cost him. One day this week, Lieberman was spotted in the Knesset cafeteria approaching a table at which several Labor MKs were seated and saying, "I'm dying to have you join the government so I can make a laughingstock of you."
Barak would have made his reputation had he insisted on getting Livni to join the new government too, thus forming a genuine national unity government. But Barak and Bibi, who are close mainly to themselves and united in their grudge against Livni, preferred to shower the members of their parties with portfolios and perks. Labor MKs' threats to abandon the party and cause a rift are unlikely to be carried out. In any case, Labor is going from bad to worse and fading into the horizon, like Charlie Chaplin in his films.
The success of the Bibi-Barak government depends on their partnership being better than that between Barak and Ehud Olmert. But what we have here are two politicians with egos the size of a Super Merkava tank and different ideologies in both domestic and foreign affairs.
It is no coincidence that while Labor was joining a right-wing government, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that his policy is peace based on two states for two peoples, a formula that does not appear in writing in Netanyahu's platform. On the other hand, Netanyahu says that he and his government will honor all commitments made by previous governments. These are formulations one does not play around with. We would not want the U.S. administration to fail to commit explicitly to safeguarding Israel's security and existence.
In forming the government, Barak proved to be easy prey. He was waiting for Bibi like someone waiting for the Messiah, and it is no coincidence that everything was sewn up in 24 hours. And Bibi proved to be the responsible political adult, via a move that achieved three results: He changed his government's image from that of a narrow right-wing government to that of a stable centrist government; he was freed of over-dependence on Lieberman's whims; and he also acquired an experienced defense minister instead of getting a fool who looks like a fool in that position.
In the secret competition between the two comeback kids, Bibi turned out to be more savvy. He needed Labor in his government, and in Barak he found a megalomaniac partner, someone afraid to remain in opposition without the defense portfolio and willing to swallow his pride even at the cost of a rift in his party. So about one third of our MKs will be ministers, assistant ministers, deputy ministers, with or without portfolios. Who cares? In the clandestine competition between the two former future stars, the score is currently 1-0 in Bibi's favor.
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