In his first days as a member of Ehud Olmert's cabinet, Ehud Barak is like the cocky teen who enters a new classroom and, to carve his niche among the students, provokes their leaders and even dares to do challenge the teacher's authority.
Last week, several days after being sworn in as defense minister, Barak thought it right to criticize the performance of the government and prime minister in the Second Lebanon War. During the memorial ceremony for the dead, which Olmert did not bother to attend, the new defense minister addressed the bereaved mothers with harsh questions: "Was it necessary? Was there no other way? Did the statesmen do everything possible - everything - to avoid casualties? Was the army ready and did the army do everything to save [lives]?"
Even though Barak has linked the anguished doubts of the families of the fallen to the bereavement that has accompanied the state since its establishment, his word selection was not coincidental. It expressed his criticism of the war's conduct and was a biting reminder for the prime minister and ministers about their responsibility for the war's outbreak and its results.
Two days had barely passed and Barak gave his opinion on the appointment of Haim Ramon to the post of vice premier. He released to the press his view that Ramon's appointment is problematic in an ethical sense because of his conviction for commiting an indecent act, and for being a political albatross.
One can agree with the substance of the defense minister's logic: The war in Lebanon exposed weaknesses in the conduct of Olmert and most of his cabinet. And Ramon's behavior toward the young female officer who worked for the prime minister's military secretary, on the morning the war began, reflects bad judgment and an ethical blunder.
But Barak cannot have his cake and eat it, too; to be a willing part of the government that brought the country the calamity of the Second Lebanon War, and to play the role of observer, sitting in the bleachers and judging its performance. He is also not ethically entitled to vote in favor of Ramon joining the cabinet and then run to tell the country of his opposition to the appointment.
From the beginning, Barak's announcement that he is joining the government for the short term - until the Winograd Committee completes its work and the final conclusions are released - has been problematic. How is it possible to run the affairs of state under such an ultimatum? Moreover, what can the impact of a single person be on the way the defense establishment conducts itself in a period of four to five months? Assuming that neither Barak nor Olmert are jointly fooling the public, his joining the government was considered to be the thing to do, both being aware of the restricted time frame.
In any case, the minute Barak decided to join the Olmert cabinet, he was not entitled to simultaneously assume the mantle of state comptroller. When he was appointed, his aides explained that he considers this an opportunity to reestablish his public standing and reach a better starting point for his next political contest - his expected race against Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of the country. These comments suggest that he is aware of the inherent contradiction in his decision and that he intends to be an insider while considering himself an outsider: to be part of the government but behave in a way that distinguishes him from it.
The considerations driving Barak and the Labor Party are not necessarily aligned with the country's needs. The broader public interest is that the government be stable, with its members committed to internal solidarity. The cabinet's collective responsibility is not only a legal obligation, a decree of the political ethos. It is also required for proper governance.
When the Labor Party leader intends, consciously, to criticize the government of which he is a member, he is applying in the public arena the flawed rules of the game acceptable to become Labor's chairman: The race for the party's leadership is never over, and every elected leader is immediately exposed to incessant attacks and challenges to his position. It is advisable for Barak not to treat Olmert the way his Labor rivals treat him.
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