Defense Minister Ehud Barak apparently believes that the Israeli public is comprised of 7.3 million Ehud Baraks - including 1.5 million Arabs, who are evidently Baraks in undercover garb. That is the only way to interpret the political mistake he made in his assaults on Tzipi Livni. A voter created in his own image should identify with the gist of his message - that a security background is essential for a prime minister. But for every male voter, there is also a female voter, who is liable to be offended by his patronizing tone, ascribe it to male chauvinism and punish Barak for it should he ever run against Livni.
The principal axis of the anti-Livni campaign being waged by both Barak and Shaul Mofaz is the military-civilian axis. But Livni is well placed to defend herself along this line. The only major general in her faction, Isaac Ben-Israel, who served on the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff and in the Defense Ministry in Barak's day, repulsed their attacks and lauded Livni's qualifications. She impressed armored corp veterans during a meeting at the Latrun memorial site. She has close personal ties with Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nehoshtan. Military Intelligence placed a senior analyst, a colonel from the research division, at her disposal to help her in negotiations with the Palestinians. If she is elected prime minister, she is expected to ask the head of the General Staff's operations department, Brig. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, to accept a promotion to major general and serve as her military secretary, on the basis of their mutual acquaintance and admiration.
If the male-female axis is the second one, then the third axis, which almost nobody talks about, is that of age. In the army, Barak got used to being a wunderkind who was always ahead of his class. After being forced to spend unnecessary years waiting for the job of chief of staff, he shortened his term, entered politics on the fast track, and within four years, had become prime minister.
Today, at age 66, Barak is watching the emergence of the next generation with longing. The youngest kid in the class has become the oldest. Livni, born in July 1958, is 16 years younger than him - a full generation. If Livni wins the Kadima primary, forms a stable government and makes it to the next general election with a chance of repeating this feat, Barak will have been out of the Prime Minister's Office for too many years to return, barring a national disaster (and even then, there is no certainty that he, rather than someone else, would be called to the flag).
Livni would not be Israel's youngest prime minister ever. That title belongs to Benjamin Netanyahu (then 46). The next youngest was Yitzhak Rabin, who was 52 at the start of his first government. Both of their governments lasted less than three years - too short, but still double that of Barak's government.
Battles between old-timers and up-and-coming youngsters are nothing new in Israeli politics. The second generation of Mapai (Labor's forerunner) feared that the addition of former chief of staff Moshe Dayan (44) and Defense Ministry director general Shimon Peres (36) to the Knesset and cabinet - Dayan as a minister, Peres as a deputy minister in a more important ministry, defense - would result in those who had been impatiently waiting their turn being passed over.
In the 22 years that followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the prime ministry rotated among two pairs of men - Rabin and Peres from Labor, and Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir from Likud. Begin and Shamir were both born in the second decade of the 20th century, while Rabin and Peres were born in the third decade. Beneath them, those born in the 1930s and 1940s withered on the vine. Only thanks to Barak's failure was new political life breathed into Ariel Sharon, the oldest person ever to enter or leave the Prime Minister's Office, and it is Sharon who resuscitated Ehud Olmert.
Rabin, especially during his five and a half years as defense minister in the Peres and Shamir governments, disseminated the fairy tale that for him, the prime ministry was only "an option, not an obsession." In reality, he never ceased wanting it, but assumed a skeptical pose so as not to be disappointed. Barak's blatant eagerness to regain the crown, now that he is longer in the tooth, is contributing to his stumbles.
The age of the politician who occupies the country's highest office is also important in another context: his relationship with the professionals who serve under him. Pinhas Lavon was appointed defense minister at age 49 - older enough than Dayan and Peres, but still young enough to be threatening to them as a competitor vying for David Ben-Gurion's job. Sharon, who became defense minister at 53, was only one year older than then-chief of staff Rafael Eitan, but did not restrain himself and functioned as a kind of super-chief of staff.
Netanyahu never succeeded in winning deference from a chief of staff who was older than he - Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. The same was true of the Amir Peretz-Dan Halutz duo. A similar trial will face Barack Obama if he wins the American presidency: Senior military commanders will be some 10 or 15 years older than him. In an emergency, that has significance, as John F. Kennedy learned when he clashed with army commanders during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
If Livni becomes prime minister, she will have to overcome three hurdles: She is a civilian, a woman and younger than both the senior ministers who will be envying her and the heads of the army and secret services. Therefore, it is a good thing that she is now facing a frontal attack by Barak and Mofaz. This experience is worth a good few years of experience; it will save her a bit of growing up on the job.
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