His career has been eulogized more than once. They said he would never be leader again, that he was insensitive, arrogant and disconnected from the people. They reckoned that his party was disintegrating and predicted that he would defect to the rival camp and glean crumbs from the table of his historical antagonist. All the same, Ehud Barak is returning to the center of the political arena and has once again joined the list of candidates for prime minister. A Haaretz-Dialog survey published last Friday confirmed a gut feeling: Barak is the most popular person in the cabinet.
True, he came last in that list of candidates for the premiership, and true, defense ministers always enjoy support in times of peace. But the elections will not take place tomorrow, and Barak is not running for prime minister right now. The survey shows that Barak has overcome the public's disgust and is once again considered legitimate. That's all he needs for the moment.
Barak's comeback campaign has been going on for a few weeks, after a lengthy period during which he was seen as the copilot to his former subordinate in the military, Benjamin Netanyahu. It does not suit Barak to serve as number two, and he is behaving like his old self again and trying to separate himself from the prime minister. The lack of a border with the Palestinians "within the historic Land of Israel" is a greater threat than the Iranian bomb, Netanyahu declared, when he spoke at Auschwitz about the Islamic Republic, "the new Amalek." Barak wants peace with Syria, even at the price of returning the Golan Heights. Netanyahu doesn't.
Barak likes attacking the "left" for its naivete and blindness, but he has adopted the left's generations-old knockout argument: If we do not partition the land between us and the Palestinians, Israel will become an apartheid state. Like his great rival, Ehud Olmert, Barak has concluded that only partition can save Zionism. Netanyahu is someplace else. He ostensibly backs a two-state solution, but now he is trying to overcome the demographic threat by giving the vote to Israelis living abroad. He will accompany negotiations with the Palestinians with a propaganda campaign against anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian Authority.
A tipping point in the delicate equilibrium between the prime minister and the defense minister became evident during the brouhaha over the Netanyahu family's maid. Barak, too, had maid troubles, which on the face of it were far more serious. Mr. and Mrs. Barak employed an illegal migrant, whereas Bibi and Sara's maid was legally employed and only complained of bad working conditions.
But Barak ignored the matter, making do with a noncommittal statement from his office, while Netanyahu accused the media of persecuting him and took advantage of a state visit to Germany to defend his wife publicly. Barak never implored the media "to leave Nili alone," and his insensitivity seems to have paid off in retrospect. Netanyahu slipped back into his old image, the pressured and sweaty one, while Barak displayed self-control and restraint - precisely the qualities the public wants for the hand on the red button.
Barak has not changed. He has always been respected but not liked. As defense minister he is demonstrating the same capability as he did in the army - to read the situation correctly and avoid the snags that hit others. His proposal to end Operation Cast Lead after a number of days, as distinct from Olmert who wanted to go on and on, was justified, and it immunized him against the Goldstone report's allegations. Meanwhile, preparing the army for the mission and the low number of Israeli casualties were notched up to his credit.
Barak's aspirations are based on two models. One is Yitzhak Rabin, who used his term as defense minister to correct his image as a weak prime minister and return to the helm as the national savior. The other is none other than Netanyahu, who received a divided and fractured Likud in 2006 and came back with it to government in 2009. Barak believes that if they succeeded, so can he. His chances depend on how the security situation plays out. If there is a national crisis, Barak could be called on to take over because of his experience and composure. An unsuccessful war could gravely damage his career, as happened to Moshe Dayan and Amir Peretz, and to Barak himself in the second intifada.
During the Olmert period, Barak tried to moderate the prime minister's aggression, to delay or shorten military operations. His critics say he feared that Olmert would take all the credit. Will Barak behave the same way when Netanyahu brings the Iranian bomb issue up for a decision? Will he manage to leverage the crisis to his own advantage and come back to the leadership in a big way?
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