Ehud Barak Doesn't Care if No One Likes Him

All signs show that Ehud Barak is planning his comeback to the Prime Minister's Office. And as crazy as it sounds, he has a better chance than most of getting there.

1. The man who keeps coming back

At the Independence Day reception for outstanding soldiers held at the President's Residence, the president, the prime minister, the defense minister and the chief of staff were each asked to choose a song and sing it via live broadcast with vocalists who were on hand. Defense Minister Ehud Barak chose "I Am Here," the song by Haim Hefer and Dubi Seltzer made famous by Yehoram Gaon. "I return from an unsown land, I return from 1,000 incarnations," sang Barak with Harel Skaat. "I'm the man who always returns, returns."

Ehud Barak
Lior Mizrahi / Israel Hayom

Anyone who read Gidi Weitz's interview with the defense minister in Haaretz Magazine last week should have no doubt: Like the protagonist of the song, Barak is preparing for his big comeback. Even though he did not articulate his ambitions in the interview, it should be clear that Barak is planning on a return to the Prime Minister's Office and believes he has a good chance of succeeding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the meantime, he is preparing the ground work. Here are just three examples from this past week. First, the wide-ranging interview he gave Weitz, in which he addressed tough questions about the public's contempt for him, his wealth and the exclusive apartment in the Akirov Towers. Second, the speech he delivered on the eve of Independence Day at the annual Defense Ministry party, in which he called upon Netanyahu to present a diplomatic plan that includes withdrawal from most of the West Bank, thereby preparing his excuse to escape from the government. Last, the founding conference held yesterday for the straw party Atzmaut, which he created and on behalf of which he promises to run in the next elections.

Ehud Barak? Comeback? This insufferable man who scores zilch in public opinion polls and always quarrels with those around him? The man who assumes official positions with great promise, and ends up a big disappointment? The flaccid sidekick to Netanyahu, who talks with him a lot and ignores his advice? Yes, that very same Barak. Because only Barak provides an alternative to the don't-give-an-inch policy of the Likud and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman - a proposal backed by experience, charisma and a convincing depiction of strategic reality. If, indeed, the diplomatic tsunami Barak is warning about rolls in and Israel is condemned and isolated internationally because of its refusal to leave the territories and establish a Palestinian state there, the public will seek an alternative to the right-wing government's "Masada and Betar" policy. If he plays his cards right, Barak will be there to draw the winning ace.

He has no party and he has no supporters, the skeptics will say. That is true but immaterial. The historical leaders Barak admires - Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Moshe Dayan - were called upon to save their homelands during times of great distress because of their personalities and experience, not because of the number of registered voters they attracted or because of party machinations. All three of them skipped back and forth among parties, depending on the mood of the moment, ignoring their platforms and institutions. Incidentally, Ariel Sharon can also be added to the list. When he was called to the flag, the political system lined up behind him and public opinion soared in the blink of an eye from loathing to admiration. This could also happen to Ehud Barak. Clearly, this is his model.

In order to be elected prime minister on behalf of the left, it is essential for a candidate to combine diplomatic moderation, at least in terms of the spoken word, with military tough-talk - and, preferably, the rank of a general. There is no other formula. It suffices to see the cries of joy from the left upon the return of soft-spoken Maj. Gen. (res. ) Amram Mitzna to the race for the Labor Party leadership. With all due respect to the social democratic blather, this doesn't interest anyone: Labor supporters want someone with military experience at the helm, not a social worker. Even Amir Peretz's embarrassing stint as defense minister in the Lebanon War is now helping him in his campaign. Mitzna and Peretz are leading in the race, and the "civilian" candidates have evaporated.

The return of Mitzna and Peretz to the race proves yet again that in Israeli politics, there is always a second, a third and even a fourth chance. Past failures are perceived as tuition for leaders of the future. With all due respect to Mitzna, Barak has a far more impressive defense, diplomatic and public profile. He has also succeeded in escaping from the Labor Party's institutions and establishing a personal party with a committee to appoint candidates - what Mitzna once dreamed about. Now all that is needed is a national crisis to bring him to the leadership. At the moment of truth, he will be forgiven for his apartment in Akirov the way Moshe Dayan was forgiven for his stolen antiquities and his adulterous affairs when his services were needed on the eve of the Six-Day War. But all these transgressions were recalled once again when he crashed in the Yom Kippur War.

2. Tahrir in Nazareth

In the Israeli political market there is an untapped resource: the Arab voters. If they come out en masse to vote in the next election, they will set off a huge and unprecedented change in the composition of the Knesset. An Arab bloc of 16 or 17 mandates would change the balance of power between left and right, and would redraw the political blocs. The political establishment would face a dilemma: Will the Zionist parties unite and barricade themselves behind a Liebermanist platform in order to repel "the Arab danger," or will the left bloc bring the Arab factions into the regime, moving Israel closer to being "a state of all its citizens"?

In the last Knesset election, held in March 2009, only 53.6 percent of eligible Arab voters participated. That compares with a turnout rate of 64.7 percent among the population at large (the figures are from the Israeli Democracy Institute report, edited by Asher Arian and Michal Shamir ). The turnout rate among Arab voters has been in a sharp decline over the past decade, indicating their disappointment with the political system and the state.

But it is not necessarily indicative of political indifference on the part of Israeli Arabs. In the municipal elections held four months before the national election, the Arab turnout was much higher. In Nazareth, for example, 34,000 residents voted in the municipal election as compared with 22,000 in the Knesset election. In Umm al-Fahm, 20,000 residents voted in the municipal election and 14,000 in the Knesset election. The conclusion is clear: Arab citizens know very well where the polling stations are. They just refrain from participating in the national political game. (In Jewish towns, the picture is the reverse, with turnout for the municipal elections far lower than for the Knesset elections. )

In the upcoming election, it will be easier than in the past to rally Arab voters around a joint platform, even if the split into a number of different parties continues. Lieberman's growing popularity and the wave of anti-Arab legislation in the current Knesset could serve as unifying factors: The Arabs are struggling for their civil rights, which the right-wing government is trying to chip away at. Other events should also promote involvement and participation: The popular revolts in the Arab countries and the Palestinian reconciliation agreement could serve as examples to the Israeli Arab community as well. A massive voter turnout in the upcoming Knesset election could be their Tahrir Square.

Arabs are far less prone than Jews to emigrate from the country or take prolonged trips abroad, which means the potential number of Arab voters is very close to the real number of eligible voters. Indeed, in the municipal elections, voter turnout among Arabs reaches 80 to 90 percent.

Had another 150,000 Arabs voted in the last general election, they could have won five additional seats in the Knesset. Hadash got only about 5,000 votes in Tel Aviv; a successful campaign could bring it several thousand more voters from the Jewish left, especially if Meretz vanishes.

The Arab vote is critical to the left bloc and, to a large extent, will determine its ascendancy or collapse. In the 1992 election, a small majority of Arabs voted for "non-Arab" parties. And that was the last time Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties had an effective majority of 61 Knesset seats. Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister as a result and signed the Oslo agreements. But in the subsequent election, which was held in the shadow of the collapse of the diplomatic process and a wave of terror attacks inside Israel, the tides turned: Two-thirds of Arab voters cast their ballots for their own parties.

This trend has intensified ever since. In the last election, 82 percent of Arabs voted for Arab parties - Ra'am-Ta'al, Hadash and Balad. The Zionist parties won support only in Druze towns and in Bedouin villages in the north, places where the men serve in the Israel Defense Forces. This concentration of support for the Arab parties served the interests of Arab voters: Despite the drop in voter turnout, the Arabs increased their representation in the Knesset from 10 seats to 11. And this was a reaction to Lieberman's growing popularity.

In these circumstances, the left bloc cannot return to power without making compromises: either giving up its diplomatic platform and bringing into the fold right-wing parties that will thwart the peace process with the Palestinians, or compromising on the ethnic makeup of the bloc and bringing the Arab parties into the fold. Up until now, the parties on the Zionist left have chosen the first of these options - partnering up with the right and the ultra-Orthodox, and the Arab parties have remained outside the government.

The dispute over the Arab community's place in society tops the current Knesset's political agenda. The Netanyahu-Lieberman government, with the partial support of Kadima, is trying to suppress the political aspirations of the country's Arab citizens and to depict them as illegitimate subversion. If a strong Arab bloc emerges in the Knesset, the dispute will intensify.

The calls to change the system of government and introduce a presidential system will increase (in presidential elections, the votes given to the loser don't count, and local constituency elections, in any format, would wipe out the Arab vote in mixed cities ). Attempts to disqualify the Arab lists in advance will also increase.

But there is also another possibility - that the Arab bloc will grow and gain strength to the point where the temptation (or the exigency ) of including it in the coalition will override prejudices and political divides. This would constitute a historic turnaround: An Israel led by a Jewish-Arab coalition would be a different country in which the dispute regarding a "Jewish state" versus an "Israeli state" will become more acute.

Is such a turnaround possible? The answer depends on the voter turnout among the Arabs and the position of their leaders. Will they repeat the act of Azmi Bishara, who registered to run for prime minister in 1999 and introduced the term "a state of all its citizens" into the political lexicon - or will they continue turning inward and boycotting the national scene, giving up the chance to translate their demographic strength into political clout? The election is in their hands and their decision will shape the political configuration more than any other factor.