Mordechai Surkis, the mayor of Kfar Sava, sat next to the cabdriver, his head turned uncomfortably to the left. In the backseat were defense minister Shimon Peres and his aid for the territories, Micha Lindenstrauss. They were in Paris on their way to meetings on the rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees. They had met Surkis on the plane and offered him a ride from the airport to town. "What's wrong, Surkis?" asked Peres. "Why don't you sit back and enjoy the scenery?"
"If I do I can't see the meter," said the old Labor Party stalwart. "The francs are flipping by so quickly."
That was eons ago, in the early 1970s, long before Peres became prime minister or president and Lindenstrauss state comptroller. It was also long before Labor's current leader, also the defense minister, flew off for the Paris Air Show and found himself under heavy fire for the profligate use of public funds. The times, and most of the people, have changed, but the criticism of Ehud Barak is justified. This, however, is not the worst way Barak has let the public down. Far more serious is the manner he has squandered time and opportunities in important areas for the future of this country and its citizens.
Barak's joining up with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was good for Netanyahu and bad for the country. Likud had at least four former top defense officials on its list for the last elections, all of them products of the traditionally Labor-linked agricultural settlement movement: Yossi Peled, Moshe Ya'alon, Assaf Hefetz and Uzi Dayan. Barak could easily have been just another one of them. Indeed, he was maneuvered into an inferior position and made to look like an ambitious but inept general when he ended up in the pocket of his ally, Histadrut labor federation chief Ofer Eini. In fact, he lost his freedom of action and is now the jointly held property of Netanyahu and Eini.
If this is an acceptable political situation, one can only sympathize with Barak's predecessor, Amir Peretz, for fearing to respond favorably to Netanyahu's feelers after the 2006 elections and form a Labor-Likud government under Peretz instead of the Kadima-Labor government under Olmert. It is easy to surmise what his opponents, with Barak at their head, would have said if Peretz had dared to head a government of 30 ministers and countless deputy ministers.
In the virtual absence of Avigdor Lieberman from the diplomatic front, Barak boasted that he was also foreign minister during the first few months of the Netanyahu government. If that was so, he has a major share in its diplomatic failures. Israel's defensive strategy has no chance of succeeding and offers no hope for a better future. We don't need a "good old boy," but rather a leader who will launch a farsighted initiative. We don't need a small-time middleman between Netanyahu and U.S. envoy George Mitchell on his way to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. If Barak recoils from such a role, he will turn himself into Netanyahu's Yisrael Galili, the man who developed Golda Meir's barren policies.
Another challenge facing Labor and Barak is in law enforcement, from the cop on the street up to the Supreme Court. As expected, and despite all warnings, Barak let other parties take the justice and public security portfolios (just as Peretz under Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer under Ariel Sharon sneaked ahead of him to become defense minister.)
By waiving these key positions for determining the character of Israeli society, and allowing them to fall to Lieberman appointees, Barak displayed impotency in dealing with law-enforcement issues and walked away from the war on crime and corruption. It was more important for him to reward his backers, Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simhon, with economic portfolios.
The current battle in this war is over Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman's proposal to split the attorney general's functions. A decade ago, Barak was saved from being indicted for election fund-raising offenses because then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein, whose opinion allowed Barak to claim he was innocent, also headed the prosecution, which accepted Barak's claim and closed the case.
Barak recently approved the military advocate general's promotion to major general. If he ultimately reconciles himself, despite his objections, to Neeman's scheme, consistency will demand a splitting of the MAG's functions to the Israel Defense Forces' legal adviser and a chief military prosecutor. Not reasonable? Neither is Neeman's proposal.
Barak, who has forgotten his promise as chief of staff that "whatever doesn't shoot will be cut," will lose what remains of his pretensions of leadership if he continues to avoid acting courageously and fritters away his influence.
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