Text size

The Labor Party, as the popular Hungarian saying goes, has a face that is headed straight into a fist. In plain English - this is a party that people love to hate. The public forgets that for three decades now, the right has been ruling the country. And during much of this period, there were abortive attempts at leadership renewal in both camps: Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, who in a mere three years succeeded in giving the brilliant, sophisticated new leaders a bad reputation, and after him Ehud Barak, "the most decorated soldier in the Israel Defense Forces," who was defeated after only a year and a half by the largest margin in Israel's history. Both contenders left their parties and took off to "build a nest egg."

Both of them came back, wealthier and, so they assert, more experienced, to contend against the surprise called Ariel Sharon, who established Kadima. Books will yet be written about the phenomenon of Sharon, who suddenly called for "shelving the dream of the greater land of Israel" after having filled the land with Jewish settlements. The tragic happenstance whereby Ehud Olmert became prime minister and the way in which he is ending his career are also topics for books, especially on issues of law and justice.

The last elections left Bibi at the head of a Likud Party that has only 12 Knesset seats and the Labor Party, headed by Amir Peretz, with 19 seats. Labor joined a coalition with Kadima, and in July 2007, Barak decided to return to politics. He did this via a beautiful letter to the secretary general of the Labor Party, MK Eitan Cabel, in which he confessed that he had erred and that his lack of experience had handicapped him. "Today I know that there are no shortcuts and that leadership is not a mission for a single individual," he wrote.

"I erred and I have changed" sounded good in a letter of remorse to the party he abandoned after its fall. He returned sleeker, sporting suits with prestigious labels and fashionable eyewear from Bulgari, straight to one of the more expensive floors in the Akirov Towers, in order to pick up the Labor Party's reins. But the suspicion quickly arose that he had invested a good deal more in building his nest egg than he had in reforming his character.

As defense minister, he is presumably utilizing his high IQ, which precedes him everywhere, and his military experience to restore the IDF's deterrent capability. Since most of what is done in this area is classified, we will know whether he has succeeded only when his work is put to the test. As chairman of the party, however, he has not worked any wonders. It is not certain that his statement in his comeback letter - that he now understands that leadership is not one-man rule - actually seeped into his consciousness. In an interview with the daily Maariv, private investigator Meir Palevsky, a former associate, described Barak as "a person without a clue about human relations, impervious and full of himself. Some of his problems derive from his bizarre management methods. He has a party, he has nonprofit organizations and he has secret headquarters A, B and C. One will lead, the second will command, the third will coordinate - and everything will end in disaster."

The end of his career as prime minister was eulogized in deadly interviews of this sort given by his best and most devoted friends, describing his behavior toward them. That was a Barak they thought would never return.

But there are signs that he has not changed all that much. This is the same Barak, arrogant and brilliant, but it is not always possible to understand what he wants. He does not have control even over his party's 19 Knesset members. Perhaps only now is he beginning to understand that the defense portfolio alone does not build a prime minister. When it comes to conduct and the ability to cooperate, he is still an arrogant soloist.

The bitterness toward him within his party's top ranks is increasing. In public opinion polls about the prime ministerial candidates, he finds himself trailing Bibi and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The last thing he expected to hear from several members of his Knesset faction was that "if he keeps tumbling in the polls, we will replace him before the elections." Replace Barak? With whom? This is not the kind of statement Barak is capable of swallowing. He is supposed to be the person who replaces and appoints, and woe unto the ears that hear the opposite.

The leadership picture as a whole is confused and disappointing. The Likud has 12 Knesset seats, but Bibi is the front-runner for prime minister in the public opinion polls. With Kadima in internal chaos, this is the ideal time for Labor to make a comeback as the leading party. Why is this not happening? Because of Barak's inability to cooperate with anyone else. In the surveys, Labor is treading water. In Dahaf polls on the candidates for prime minister, Bibi is marching in the lead, Livni is in second place and Barak is only in third place. This is not the baby Barak was expecting.

According to one of his close associates, Barak thinks that Livni is indeed not suited to be prime minister, and the possibility of her being elected Kadima's chairwoman and candidate for prime minister has made him angry. And thus overnight, Tzipi has become Tzipora. His attack on Livni's lack of defense and diplomatic experience - "and who will phone whom at 3 A.M.?" - looks like a pathetic attempt to smear her image. Meanwhile, however, she is ahead of him in all the polls about the candidates for prime minister. With the Labor Party marching in place and its politicians unattractive, it is not likely that Ehud Barak will be the next prime minister.