Analysis

Ehud Barak Promises to Topple Netanyahu, Yet May End Up Joining Him

The former prime minister is seen by the Israeli public as a leader of equal stature to Netanyahu, but his return is unlikely to end right-wing rule

Likud and Labor election posters featuring Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Jerusalem, February 3, 2009.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

UPDATE: Barak unveils name of his new party

The last time Ehud Barak founded a new party was in January 2011. The now-forgotten Independence Party lasted just under two years. The new, as yet unnamed party he announced Wednesday is unlikely to last any longer.

At the time, Barak broke away from Labor because the party was unhappy being in a governing coalition with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. But Barak didn’t want to go into the opposition and relinquish his position as defense minister and Netanyahu’s closest confidant.

Barak and Netanyahu first met 43 years ago, when they served together in the Israel Defense Forces’ elite Sayeret Matkal unit. Together, they had even planned an elaborate strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In order to savor his already prolonged honeymoon with Netanyahu and save his coalition, Barak preferred to split Labor, taking four other lawmakers with him. At the end of 2012, realizing that Netanyahu never meant to give the order to launch the strike on Iran, Barak decided to leave politics. The erstwhile members of his Independence Party learned that their party had ceased to exist from the media.

>> Read op-eds by Ehud Barak: After Netanyahu's reelection, the challenge ahead will be no picnic ■ Israel's party leaders are elected by political rot and corruption ■ Netanyahu must be questioned under caution in submarine affair

Ehud Barak speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, June 26, 2019.
Meged Gozani

Barak has a CV like no other figure in Israeli politics. The most-decorated officer ever in the IDF. The shortest-serving prime minister. A man of immense talents who always finds a way to let his ego trip up his aspirations.

In his term in office — which lasted a year and seven months — he went further than anyone else in trying to reach peace agreements with Syria and the Palestinians, failing in both attempts. His term ended in ignominy with the suicide attacks of the second intifada. In 2007, he staged a comeback, winning the Labor leadership for a second time, only to split the party four years later. 

Now Barak is founding a new party, which he claims is meant to “topple the Netanyahu regime” and “serve as an infrastructure for new connections.” What does that mean? Is he planning to link up with Labor and Kahol Lavan in a mega-centrist party? Will that even help bring Netanyahu down? And what does Barak want for himself? To be prime minister? Would he serve under someone else as defense minister?

Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 2, 1986.
AFP

At 77 and now on his second political comeback, there is no point in even wondering whether Barak has changed. In fact, perhaps he may find himself serving under his old soldier Netanyahu again.

Barak looks at the leaderless Labor, where Itzik Shmuli — an activist half his age and with a tenth of his experience — may soon be elected its new leader. He looks at Kahol Lavan under the uncertain leadership of Benny Gantz, who was barely a colonel when Barak was IDF chief of staff and who has already agreed to give part of his term in office, if he ever wins, to chat show host Yair Lapid.

Barak doesn’t think any of these figures are worthy of serving as prime minister, not while he’s still around. That’s why he’s back.

But what's another centrist party going to do? Barak’s return is unlikely to draw Likud voters and end the right-wing’s majority. Kahol Lavan, which already suffers from too many leaders, won’t join up with the Barak party. Would Labor? It could make sense and enhance the depleted credibility of the badly mauled party. But why would they join the man who so callously abandoned them in 2011?

Barak brings with him one major asset. He is seen by the Israeli public as a leader of equal stature to Netanyahu. He beat him in 1999 and was his closest political partner from 2009 to 2013 as defense minister. He won’t be distracted by any of the spins and smears that so badly disorientated Gantz in the last election campaign. As a figurehead, or chief spokesperson for the opposition, he could be effective.

But he has a track record of wrecking parties, and his reentry into the fray could cause chaos in the opposition. If he indeed joins Labor, he would take voters away from Kahol Lavan, perhaps ensuring Likud remains the biggest party. He could also force Kahol Lavan to move further to the right, in order to differentiate itself from Labor-Barak. That may lure some Likud voters, boosting the center-left bloc.

The biggest concern with Barak is that, like in the past, he will transform overnight from Netanyahu’s political foe to old comrade-in-arms. If Netanyahu somehow wins the September 17 election and offers him the chance to become defense minister again in return for ensuring his political survival, Barak may prove incapable of resisting.

Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012.
Ariel Hermony / Defense Ministry