Even Without Running, Ehud Barak Presents a Public Challenge to Netanyahu

The former prime minister's announcement that he is not planning a return to politics must be taken with a hefty dose of salt, but his latest appearances have done more to worry Netanyahu than any center-left politician in recent years.

Ehud Barak speaking at the Herzliya Conference, June 16, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

After admonishing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Herzliya Conference on Thursday, former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak appeared on Channel 2’s Ulpan Shishi on Friday evening. Armed with a new bearded look and verbal shells, he bashed Netanyahu as no one has in recent years.

Barak reminded viewers that he has known Netanyahu since the latter was 20 and that the current prime minister was no magician but at the most a master illusionist who spreads false propaganda. He said Netanyahu, having understood the countdown to the end of his term has begun, was panicking; and for dessert added that the prime minister has “gone off the rails.”

Even those who hate Barak — and many do — would not be able to deny that his speech and television appearance presented a public challenge for Netanyahu, certainly more than any center-left politician has in recent years.

The importance of Barak’s recent public appearances isn’t in his electoral appeal, which is apparently non-existent, or in a new political faction he would or wouldn’t be part of. Their significance is in presenting a serious, reliable alternative narrative to Netanyahu’s — something opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid have failed to do. If he continues to do so, Barak could create an environment that enables others to establish themselves as alternatives and beat Netanyahu in the elections.

Netanyahu understands this too, hence the overlong response his aides prepared in advance and distributed even while Barak was still talking on TV.

One of Netanyahu’s main arguments against Barak is that when the latter served as defense minister in his cabinet, he didn’t voice any criticism against him. This is inaccurate, to say the least. In a speech Barak made in March 2011 at the Institute for National Security Studies he castigated Netanyahu’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians. This was the speech in which Barak uttered his famous warning of a “diplomatic tsunami” — a warning he repeated using different language last Thursday.

Barak’s main criticism of Netanyahu pertains to the prime minister’s conduct since his election victory last year. Barak said in his interview on Friday that Netanyahu has changed over the past year due to “the radical right’s hijacking of the government.”

Indeed, the two previous governments that consisted of parties from the center and the left were more balanced and didn’t try to carry out that rightist revolution that the current government is attempting to lead.

Barak announced on Friday that he is not planning on running for prime minister or returning to politics. “There are other options apart from running for prime minister or sitting at home and keeping quiet,” he said.

Barak’s words must be taken with a hefty dose of salt. Many political comebacks began with the candidate’s declaration that they have no intention of running. No one should be surprised if “spontaneous” ads appear in newspapers in which former generals, public figures and ordinary concerned citizens express support for Barak. In a few months Israelis will see him explaining that he was merely accepting the call of duty.