The absence of Defense Minister Ehud Barak from the Knesset two days ago while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was responding to the Winograd Report is hard to explain with the far-fetched excuses his associates give after the fact. His absence, like the messages from his office that the defense minister is critical of the speech and speechmaker and believes it is "cynical" and "arouses serious thoughts" looks like an attempt to walk between the raindrops and create escape hatches for Barak. It does not look like the behavior of a party leader.
Shortly after he took his defense minister's seat, anxious to remove his predecessor, and with the arrogance of someone who had nothing to do with anything connected with Lebanon or the pre-2006 Israel Defense Forces, Barak chose a tortuous path. After the Winograd Committee's partial report, which severely criticized the government's functioning, he festively promised in the famous "Sdot Yam speech" that he and his party colleagues would resign from the government if the final report was also severe.
In the months since then he has maintained a vague silence. His associates said he had to stick with Olmert to prevent the return of the extreme right, first and foremost Benjamin Netanyahu. But it also turned out that there were problematic differences of opinion between him and the prime minister. These differences turned into real friction when it emerged that Barak was conducting his own channel of talks with the settlers, while Olmert had promised the U.S. president at Annapolis to evacuate outposts.
As the publication of the final report approached, Barak was surrounded by assumptions, guesses and public pressure, but he continued to broadcast a vague message that presumably lets him change his mind at any given moment. First he declared that the report was severe, but he said he had to stay in the government "because of the challenges that are confronting the country." Just one day later he told his party faction that "the report is severe, with personal and ethical conclusions that are not simple," that Olmert is not immune to criticism and that "we will decide when to respond and we will determine a date for elections."
Barak's choice does no honor to him and shames the Labor Party. Although the Israeli public is already indifferent to broken promises and empty declarations, when the head of the second largest and second most important party exploits the convenient advantage of remaining in the government, he holds that same government hostage to his career.
There is no chance the government can be decisive and act. Even if the considerations for staying that he presented are reasonable, he cannot continue to sit in the government in the second most important position and further undermine the fragile trust between him and Olmert.
If Barak believes that Olmert is not worthy of continuing to head the government, and is interested in replacing him, he must resign and run at the head of his party in elections. If he has chosen to stay he is signaling that he has confidence in Olmert.
Remaining in the government while behaving like a separatist may add to his political power, but will cause destructive paralysis and damage the government's operations, politics and the country.
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