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The headline of this article should be read several times in order to understand the gravity of what the last few days, weeks and months have done to Ehud Barak. During this time and until last night's announcement that he was pulling out of the race, he tried to pave his way back to the Labor Party leadership, Borrowing from a previous chapter of Barak's life, you could say that he has now completed an advanced boot camp, a stepped-up course in humility. The admission of error, something in which Barak has never excelled, is the passing-out ceremony, the bestowing of rank, the bucket of cold water poured over his head.

It is not easy for Barak to form these words. In the inner sanctum, he might admit to his close aides that he should have listened to the advice they and others gave him before he entered the race. Don't be in such a rush, his best friends told him at the time, the people are not yet ready, the party is not yet ready. Say that you have come to serve, to help, to assist - not necessarily to conquer, to dominate, to gallop.

Never, says Barak, has anyone heard me say I was going to take the party easily, with an SMS or a fax. That is a story that my opponents spread about me. I didn't think it would be easy. But it may be that I was wrong when I did not listen to friends who told me to say: I am at your service. Tell me what you want me to do. Tell me how I can help. I didn't listen to friends who told me how they want it to happen. Too late, I realized that the collective soul of the party wants stabilization, wants unity around Shimon Peres, and as soon as I understood that, that is what I did. I thought of the good of the party. I thought about the "what" and not about the "how," which is what my friends wanted. On the other hand, he confesses, I wouldn't have been me if I had done it any other way.

In these conversations, Barak also admits that he did not correctly assess the organizational and voter recruitment strength of the camp of his main challenger, Amir Peretz. Once the dimensions of the storm - the storm of party members signed up by Peretz - became clear, he had no choice but to bitterly complain about the roll call in which cardboard boxes filled with applications from new members were delivered to party headquarters. But by then it was already too late for him. Now he is joining forces with Peres to eliminate Peretz. That is the sole objective. Not party, not soul, not anything else.

Barak is closing a circle now. He is going back nine years to the 1996 elections, when he ran in the primaries for a spot on Labor's Knesset list. Presumably you're aiming for first place, he was asked. I'm aiming for 26th place, he replies, and here, too, he is prepared to admit error. I made a mistake, he says, by not insisting that the media would not describe my return to political life as something quick and immediate. The moment that I declare I am aiming for 26th place, the media immediately lowers expectations, meaning that even if I am not voted into first place, no one can write that that is what I was going for.

It's not that I got an immediate attack of humility, he says. Even now I think that I am the best-suited person to lead us against the divided Likud. But I reached the conclusion that I am less important than the party and the chance to realize its opportunity in the next elections. We have, he says, a genuine chance to put together the next government; since the Likud will not be running this time as a united party, Sharon's party will shrink as the elections grow closer, and the Labor Party, with Peres as its leader, the same Peres that he called a "loser," will assemble the next coalition. And Peres will be asked to prove his magnanimousness when he is asked to decide on the portfolio that would be given to Barak.

Peace now? Now?

Along the far edges of Israeli politics, in a side alley far from the central stage, the Israeli left is trying to resurrect itself, to signal that it has not fled, that it still has something to say. In the view of some, this is a heroic struggle; in the view of others, a pathetic attempt. Who's got the strength for all this talk about a permanent settlement, about a Palestinian partner, about a Geneva agreement, about "peace," when everything is focused on Ariel Sharon and his battle for survival against Bibi.

The demonstration scheduled by the left for Saturday night, September 24, the day before the Likud Central Committee convenes, was planned to be the great show of unity of all of the bodies, organizations, and individuals with good intentions. But less than two weeks before the date, first cracks are already showing in the wall. Officials from Ami Ayalon's "People's Voice" announced a few days ago that they were pulling out of the joint committee organizing the demonstration. Its message - a permanent settlement, now - seems wrong to them. Even though the whole essence of the People's Voice is a permanent settlement. People's Voice representatives had other suggestions that were rejected by the Geneva agreement and Peace Now; for instance, declared support for Sharon, a call on Sharon to continue the evacuation of isolated settlements.

There is no way we could accept that, say the Geneva folks; if Sharon evacuates another three settlements in his next term, that is something for which we should support him? Besides which, say Yossi Beilin's people, who decided that the people are against a permanent settlement? As evidence, they present a poll conducted last week by the New Wave polling institute, in which the following question was asked: Are you for or against a permanent settlement between Israel and the Palestinians that would include the evacuation of most of the settlements in Judea and Samaria? Forty-seven percent said they backed the statement, and 42 percent said they were opposed.

The respondents were also asked to render an opinion on the following sentence, which was read aloud to them: Only an agreement with the Palestinians can enable Israel to have its demands met, therefore Israel should conduct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority leadership. "Somewhat agree" and "Very much agree" scored 27 percent and 26 percent, respectively. "Not at all agree" and "Somewhat disagree" scored 12.5 percent and 17 percent, respectively.

What makes Moratinos laugh?

"I've noticed something funny," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos told Ariel Sharon when they met last week at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. "The more that the international community supports you, the more your party attacks you." Sharon smiled his bashful, modest smile, which has more than once helped him to charm his way through a conversation. You know how it is, he said. Moratinos didn't give up. "I read this morning that your situation in the polls is improving. What does that say about your term in office? Will it be shortened?" Will the primaries be moved up?"

Someone who was present at the event said that Sharon delivered to Moratinos a short lecture about what was new in Likudland. Anyone who has heard Sharon talking in the past few days gets the impression that he is determined to bid the Likud farewell and not vie in the primaries for the party leadership against Netanyahu, Landau and Feiglin, even if he wins in the Central Committee later this month and even if the primaries are postponed, as Sharon wants, for an indefinite period.

Sharon aides assess that even if he wins the central committee vote on when the primaries will be held, the war over the hearts of the party members will be much tougher. Even now, with Netanyahu's fortunes sinking, Sharon can muster only 38 percent to Netanyahu's 44 percent (according to the most optimistic [for Sharon] poll, conducted last week among party members by the Dialog polling institute, in conjunction with Haaretz). In order to beat Netanyahu in a second round, Sharon needs 50 percent of the votes of Likud members, plus one more vote. Most of Sharon's advisers still feel that this objective is beyond reach.