The new punching bag has appeared. His name is Ehud Barak. For heaven's sake, he grabbed a microphone at a meeting at his party's central committee; how ugly can you get? Not that Barak doesn't deserve condemnation for his ringing failures of statecraft - the criminal missing of an opportunity with Syria, for which he is exclusively to blame, and for the gross failure with the Palestinians, for which he is partially to blame. But just before we join the uniform raucous chorus that has risen up against him, from Haim Ramon to Moshe Shahal and most of the media, we have to stop and ask ourselves who the leadership alternatives are and what chance this hated person will bring peace, even though he snatched a microphone and even though he behaved arrogantly when he was prime minister.
Compared to all other Labor Party candidates, he is the only one who offers a chance, even if that prospect is accompanied by an equally great risk. To rely on Barak is to engage in a great gamble, but the hope is just as great. When the known situation is so despairing, only the unknown offers a ray of hope. To back Shimon Peres, Matan Vilnai, Ephraim Sneh, Haim Ramon or Amir Peretz is to go for the sure thing. But to go where? To more treading of stagnant water? To more partial and incoherent proposals? To more "interim settlements"? "Settlement blocs"? "Territorial compromise"? To go crawling into the government of Ariel Sharon? Barak is the only one who is capable, perhaps, of shaking up the situation and changing things radically. It might end in another disaster, but it might also produce a historic achievement. What's certain is that things can't get much worse than they already are. The occupation is deeper and more cruel than ever, the bloodshed doesn't stop, and Israel's moral image has been twisted badly. What more is there to lose?
As prime minister, Barak tried to act on a grand scale and failed. But for a brief moment, that attempt held up a new prospect for the Middle East. Since his failure, the situation has deteriorated even further: With his deeds and his failures, he brought the intifada on us. The gulf between us and the Palestinians can no longer be bridged by small jumps; it will take a daring giant leap across the chasm, which none of the other candidates, in either Likud or Labor, is capable of doing.
There is no little irony here. It is precisely now, when the situation is almost beyond despair, in part because of Barak, that the time cries out for a great, brave and radical leap that perhaps only Barak can make. Peres is more experienced, and Ramon, Vilnai, Sneh and Peretz are more judicious - but what difference does that make? We have already tried their path - for 37 accursed years. None of them truly did anything to put an end to the occupation. Has anyone ever seen Vilnai change the fundamental order of things? Or Ramon put an end to the occupation? Or Sneh make a bold move? Or Amir Peretz, who lacks the requisite policy experience, do something daring? Or Peres bring true peace after 37 years in which he played a senior role in the occupation? This occupation can no longer wait for the tactics and the manipulations of the Labor Party leaders. It certainly cannot tolerate another four years of Likud rule, with or without Sharon. The occupiers and the occupied can no longer make do with endless negotiations about the transit arrangements between Area A and Area B, in the best case.
Barak is arrogant and is not a beloved leader. He behaved greedily and did not hesitate to go on business trips escorted by state-supplied security people. So what? His only test is his ability to extricate Israel from its severe situation. With the monstrous settlement enterprise and the lethal separation fence having almost put an end to the prospect for peace, with the curse of the occupation having trickled down into every sphere of our life, and of course, the life of the Palestinians, what further disaster can Barak foment? Every candidate who will propose that all of this continue will inflict an even larger disaster.
Barak has already proved that he is capable of making daring proposals. He did so for unacceptable reasons - the desire to expose the "true face" of Yasser Arafat - but he did not hesitate to be open to ideas that no senior Israeli ever dared do before or since. True, his proposals were not daring enough, and he retracted them in a panic. At Camp David he conducted negotiations without good faith, and he turned out to be a coward in the face of Syria - but still, he tried what no on else ever did.
The fact that Barak is the only person who offers any kind of hope is itself depressing. The fact that the Labor Party is debating which of its array of generals to pick - all of them tainted by the occupation - is equally sad. Yet it is in just such a situation that no one has the luxury to forgo every iota of hope, not even hope of the kind Barak is offering, just because he failed once. All his colleagues failed far worse. They didn't even try - and they will never try.
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