Benjamin Netanyahu is in trouble. He missed the opportunity to push forward the election at the high point of his popularity and now his leadership is flagging. The ruse to split Kadima failed and exposed the prime minister's predicament. The Likud is returning to its extreme-right roots, as the party of the settlers and their sycophants. The recession is here and the cabinet is forced to raise taxes and cut back services. The controversy over the draft law has shown Netanyahu as a collaborator with the ultra-Orthodox draft-dodgers. The social protest is not sweeping masses like last year, but it is embarrassing the government.
Netanyahu is doing badly on the defense-diplomatic front as well. The talk about attacking Iran has become a political gag. The prime minister's opponents mock his eagerness to go to war, like class bullies who took the weak boy's toy and are now stamping on it. Shaul Mofaz tarred Bibi with the spin that he brought Tzachi Hanegbi to the government to create a majority for bombing Iran. What shabbiness. Saving Israel from the "second Holocaust," as Netanyahu calls the Iranian nuclear bomb, now depends on a convicted wheeler-dealer.
Netanyahu has one winning card left - he has no rival. Public opinion polls show the prime minister is alone in the ring. His potential contestants are seen by the public as unprepared and unworthy. Yair Lapid is charismatic, but inexperienced. Shelly Yacimovich recoils from the high office. Shaul Mofaz is a constant zig-zagger and his party is crumbling. Tzipi Livni, Haim Ramon and Ehud Olmert have been kicked to the sidelines of public life and will have difficulty coming back.
What a tragedy. Netanyahu's weakness and the Likud's slide toward the extreme right present the center-left with an opportunity to return to power. But in the absence of a leader, the opportunity will evaporate. The public's votes will scatter among several weightless parties and Netanyahu will collect them to his bosom after the election at the lowest price.
There is only one leader in the political arena who can lead the center-left camp to victory over Netanyahu, and that is Ehud Barak. Only he has a rich military and diplomatic record and the aura of a general who is prepared to return territories. He has close relations with the American administration and proven experience in dealing with Netanyahu and defeating him.
Barak is portrayed in the media as Netanyahu's blind partner and the two have enjoyed fostering tales of exchanging secrets and camaraderie from their days in the commando unit. Nonsense. Barak thinks Netanyahu is a weak, paralyzed leader, running in place and constantly looking around like a weathercock for what the public wants to hear.
What Netanyahu thinks of the defense minister is unknown. It is only clear that he humiliates Barak at every chance he gets. Netanyahu has consistently ignored Barak's advice on state affairs. In recent weeks he has appointed the ministerial committee for settlement affairs over his head and charged Barak's rival and pretender to the defense ministry, Moshe Ya'alon, to formulate the draft law. Barak responded with a message signaling that he objects to attacking Iran, as Sefi Rachlevsky wrote here on Tuesday.
Barak, therefore, is both capable and motivated to strike at Bibi, but this is not enough. He is faced with two hurdles - he is not popular, and his current party is a joke devoid of content. To spring over these hurdles, two things must happen - the public's disappointment with Netanyahu must increase and a new, broad political framework must be formed.
Barak will not suddenly become the public's darling. People will only support him for lack of choice, to get rid of Bibi, as they did in 1999. Nor will the Atzmaut faction emerge as a ratings blockbuster that will beat the Likud in the polls. A move to unite the camp is called for, as Ariel Sharon did in setting up Likud before the Yom Kippur War.
Barak is 70 years old. He returned to politics five years ago, not to sit in the Defense Ministry forever but to return to the prime minister's seat. Netanyahu's lapses provide him with a one-time opportunity to make a comeback. For this dream to come true, Barak must initiate and establish a new political framework and take advantage of the right timing to quit the cabinet. If he misses the moment, we'll remain with Netanyahu for another four years.
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