Ehud Barak, Mr. Almost

Barak must come to his senses and take concrete steps that would compel Olmert to immediately relinquish management of the state's affairs.

Ehud Barak reminds one of the "almost man" from Hanoch Levin's ballad, sung by Yehudit Ravitz: "The almost man loved the lady for a while, almost told her, but did not." The almost man is a man who flinches at the last moment, who misses the opportunity, who wants but does not dare. And that is how life passes him by - with her ready and willing, signaling her desire, but left unrequited.

During his term as prime minister, in 2000, Ehud Barak sounded like someone who was intent on reaching an agreement with Yasser Arafat, but recanted at the last minute. During that same period, Barak looked as if he were on the brink of signing an historic peace treaty with Hafez Assad, but at close to zero hour, he found another reason to refrain from doing so. After the publication of the Winograd Committee's interim report, which clearly enunciated Ehud Olmert's responsibility for the failures of the Second Lebanon War, Barak explicitly stated his intention to quit the government immediately after the committee released its final report, but he decided to claim "changed circumstances" so as to avoid keeping his word. Since being tapped as defense minister, Barak has escalated his rhetoric against the Hamas leadership and repeatedly threatened a large-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip, yet he has not followed through on his threats.

At every one of these critical junctures, Barak presented himself as a level-headed leader when he undertook his initiatives and scattered his promises, then similarly wrapped himself in a veneer of responsibility and the national welfare when he backtracked. Barak strives to appear to be the paragon of political wisdom and careful calculation, but his behavior is reminiscent of the almost-man from the ballad.

There are indications that this aspect of Barak's personality has reared its head over the 10 days that have elapsed since he presented Olmert with his ultimatum: Remove yourself from your prime ministerial duties until you have removed the stain of corruption with which you are tainted. The Labor Party leader was correct in his May 28 assessment that Olmert could not continue managing the affairs of state, both for practical reasons (he is bogged down with an investigation) and for normative ones (it is unbecoming for a man suspected of gross acts of corruption to continue serving as prime minister). In issuing the ultimatum, Barak became the mouthpiece of the lion's share of the public, which seeks an honest, uncorrupted national leadership, and his move gave political expression to a sense that the Labor Party was strong enough to foment the necessary change, whether by replacing Olmert with another candidate from Kadima or by calling early elections.

Since then, however, Barak has looked like someone trying to backtrack from the lines he drew in the sand. He did declare that "the other shoe has dropped," but in the same breath said that the Labor Party champions "governmental stability." Ten days have passed since the ultimatum, and neither Barak nor his party has taken any step toward implementing their threat. In fact, after consulting with Labor ministers last Thursday, faction head Eitan Cabel said: "It is not inconceivable that in another two or three weeks we will bring a bill to dissolve the Knesset for a preliminary reading. We are considering this with the utmost earnestness."

This is not the battle cry of a leading political party capable of bringing down the prime minister. Rather, it is the hesitancy of a weak coalition partner that seeks to remain close to the seat of power despite the odious reek that emanates from it. In the meantime, Olmert is dipping into his bag of tricks and moving to neutralize Barak's ultimatum. He is stalling and coaxing Kadima into postponing, if not completely suspending, the process of organizing party primaries designed to crown his successor.

Barak must come to his senses and take concrete steps that would compel Olmert to immediately relinquish management of the state's affairs. Not only does public hygiene require this, but it is also in Barak's interest to restore his personal credibility and once again be considered a candidate worthy of leading the country. Moreover, Barak is the defense minister, and by virtue of his job, his words carry extra weight. They are heard and studied not just locally but throughout the world, and certainly in the hostile environment that surrounds Israel. Nobody will pay serious heed to the words, or threats, of a defense minister who is carving out a place for himself in the public's mind as the "almost man."