Analysis

Barak Invites Center-left to 'Party Like It's 1999' as He Tries to Take Down Netanyahu

With perfect timing, the former prime minister parachutes directly into his anxious successor’s attempted constitutional putsch

Ehud Barak prepares to announce his new political party in a press conference, Tel Aviv, June 26, 2019.
Meged Gozani

The Hebrew translation of the title of the 2007 comedy classic “Superbad” is often cited in Israel as a prime example of crass provincial vulgarity. Nonetheless, the uncouth name of the movie fits Ehud Barak like a glove: He is, indeed, “Lusting for Time.”

Barak’s obsession with the concept of time is well-known and adequately documented. He prides himself on his ability to dismantle clocks and watches and put them back together again. He is a collector of expensive timepieces and wears them proudly: Several years ago Barak was lambasted for walking around with a $30,000+ Breguet watch on his wrist.

A politician who purports to lead the Israeli left, critics admonished, cannot sport a watch that costs more than his voters' annual income.

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During his first and apparently last tenure as prime minister, Barak worshipped a clock he had received as a gift from then-U.S. President Bill Clinton. It was given a place of honor in the prime minister’s bureau; employees were told to keep their distance lest they damage it.

Barak was nonetheless beside himself because the clock chimed every half hour rather than the customary hour. He suspected his aides of sabotage, called in Shin Bet agents to ascertain whether they had damaged the clock during their security screening and remained on edge until the White House explained that it was a maritime clock that rang on the half-hour to suit the changing shifts of a ship’s crew.

Barak’s fascination with time, however, isn’t limited to instruments that measure it. Throughout his adult life, he has delved into the philosophy of time, studied its effects on people and processes and fostered the ability to identify approaching change before it occurs. Before the Israeli election in 1996, he presciently warned of a “cherry blossom” that could facilitate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s astounding victory. Three years later, Barak used the same metaphor to explain why his widely-expected loss to Netanyahu in the 1999 election turned out to be a resounding victory.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Benny Gantz attend a Home Front Command drill, Holon, October 21, 2012.
Moshe Milner/GPO

In the ensuing twenty years, Barak morphed in public opinion from dashing hero and great promise to one of the most despised and vilified figures in the public arena, ostensibly refuting Shakespeare’s claim in "Julius Caesar" that in life, timing is everything. 

Barak, however, is also a student of the stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, from whom he absorbed the virtues of patience, a disregard for failures, setbacks and jeers from the bleachers as well as the resolute determination to return to the ring at an appropriate and optimal time.

Barak’s announcement in a press conference in Tel Aviv on Wednesday that he intends to form a new party to compete in the September 17 election indicates that his refined sense of timing hasn’t waned, along with his uncanny reading of the battlefield. His perfect timing is one of the main reasons why the reentry of a politician long considered past his prime turned into a big bang that shook the body politic and the election campaign to their core.

Some analysts believe that Barak’s immediate goal was to preempt and influence Labor Party members slated to elect their new leader on Tuesday. Those who are enthused about Barak’s return and the prospect of attaching Labor to his new party are likely to steer clear of former Defense Minister Amir Peretz, whose relationship with Barak is frosty at best, and to prefer either one of his rivals, Itzik Shmuli or Stav Shaffir, who have indicated their willingness to collaborate with their party's former leader.

Nonetheless, Barak’s seemingly spontaneous and certainly ill-prepared presser in Tel Aviv was the result of a quick decision to exploit the crisis sparked by Netanyahu’s surprise move to cancel the September 17 ballot he had imposed on his coalition in the Knesset, and to strike while the iron was still hot. The news reports that Netanyahu had recruited hitherto well-regarded Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein as his front man in what Barak justifiably described as an attempted “political putsch” startled most Israelis, especially those on the center and the left, who had naively assumed that Netanyahu could shock them no longer.

Netanyahu’s critics were alarmed by the prime minister’s continuing sabotage of Israel’s constitutional norms and revolted by his spineless minions, who were now providing contorted explanations for why an election they had voted for only a month ago was suddenly superfluous and risky. Mostly, they were frustrated and perturbed by the prevalent perception of their own leadership, led by Benny Gantz, as woefully lacking the cunning, courage and quick tongue needed in order to stand up to Netanyahu and undermine his sinister designs.

Barak parachuted himself onto the scene and over the heads of Gantz and his partners in Kahol Lavan straight into the maelstrom sparked by Netanyahu’s machinations. He seemed to fill the leadership vacuum that most center-left had already accepted as a fait accompli, even it meant certain defeat. Like the former soldier that he is, Barak hit the ground running and opened fire on anything that moves, especially Netanyahu. He provided the prime minister’s haters enticing samples of the fighting spirit, devastating rhetoric and willingness to wage the total and unconventional war they were dreaming of.

According to press reports, fear of Barak’s return and the chance that it could precipitate a movement from right to left of the ridiculously small number of Knesset seats needed for Netanyahu’s defeat was the prime minister’s main motivation for reversing his previous support for the September 17 ballot.

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz attends a political rally, Tel Aviv, April 7, 2019.
Moti Milrod

All it took for Netanyahu to flagrantly violate established constitutional tradition – and to cast his devoted Likud minions as shameless and gutless toadies – was a single public opinion poll that indicated that his victory in the election was less certain than he thought. If it turns out that his pivot was the straw that broke the back of wavering Likud voters, Barak will undoubtedly claim his share of the credit.

Netanyahu’s fear of Barak, however, is less rational and electoral and more personal and psychological. As Tal Shalev (full disclosure: the writer's daughter) wrote on Israeli website Walla News on Thursday, Netanyahu suddenly finds himself besieged on both right and left by two politicians who know him and his weaknesses all too well, can pinpoint the closets in which he hides his skeletons and are more disdainful than deterred by his behavior.

More than 40 years have passed since Barak and Netanyahu served together in the fabled elite military unit Sayeret Matkal, but their hierarchical relations as commander and subordinate is ingrained in their psyches, as Barak regularly and pointedly points out.

The unexpected enthusiasm and media interest generated by Barak’s return is a direct result of the election campaign’s overriding theme: the unquestioning devotion of Netanyahu’s fans and the intense wish of the center-left to see him gone. The aggressive taunting on Twitter and Facebook that Barak initiated less than two years ago – which seems, in retrospect, to have been part of a well-prepared plan – has blunted much of the criticism levelled at him from the left as well as the widespread distaste for his alleged arrogance, failures, penchant for tycoons and big money – which he shares with Netanyahu – and even the lingering suspicion that, as in the past, he will eventually find an excuse to team up with his rival. But when the left has no God beyond ridding Israel of Netanyahu, voters may be willing to let bygones be bygones and to anoint Barak as their new king.

But even if Barak ultimately fails to dent Netanyahu’s seemingly ironclad majority, his entry in the race poses a clear and present danger for Gantz and his cohorts. They owe their meteoric rise to leadership of the left and the impressive 35 seats they got in the April election to the same lust to beat Netanyahu that is now drumming up support for Barak, as in he who lives by the sword, etc.

Barak is known for staring directly “into the whites of Netanyahu’s eyes,” while Gantz is seen as lowering his own and hoping for the best. Barak is a whiz at dispatching lethally witty barbs at Netanyahu, while Gantz is perceived as mumbling dull words of opposition that include hidden escape hatches if he changes his mind.

The reserved and handsome Gantz may look as if he was born to be prime minister but when his voters are lusting for a bout of mud-wrestling they may prefer an experienced guerrilla fighter like Barak, who is quick to draw blood. Henceforth, every public appearance or statement by Barak will only highlight his vitality and cast his rival’s demure and restrained manner in an increasingly negative light in comparison.

Ehud Barak attends a political event, Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2016.
Tomer Appelbaum

Unlike Gantz, who lost his only matchup with Netanyahu in April, Barak can boast of his decisive victory over Netanyahu in 1999, the last recorded victory by the center-left over the right. History may repeat itself only as a farce, as Karl Marx noted, but Barak can draw encouragement from Mark Twain’s preemptive rejoinder that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

In 1999, Netanyahu’s triumph was also seen as certain, even though he was embroiled then, as today, in several corruption affairs and police investigations.

Netanyahu’s most formidable challenge was initially perceived to come from one of Kahol Lavan’s instant-party precursors, the Centre Party, whose leader, the late Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, didn’t have the stomach to fight Netanyahu till the bitter end. Voters ultimately preferred Barak’s belligerence and merciless taunting of Netanyahu, especially after he cobbled together newcomers from both left and right to join Labor in his new ad hoc movement, "One Israel."

Barak’s plan of action in 2019 is basically the same, although conditions have changed for the worse: He is no longer the great white hope of the Israeli left but a 77-year-old retiree whose future is supposedly in his past. The right wing’s allegiance to Netanyahu in 1999 was far from the dogmatic, no-questions-asked devotion he enjoys today. Barak, however, has nothing to lose: If he won’t beat Netanyahu he will at least hammer, injure, humiliate him and go down in history as a politician who went down fighting.

For leftists who have resigned themselves to defeat in September, Barak offers a road to hell paved with small pleasures and schadenfreude at Netanyahu’s expense. Barak is inviting his potential supporters to “party like it's 1999,” as Prince sang, even if this time around they won’t get to hear him proclaim “the dawn of a new day” at a victory bash in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and will have to make do with a pulsating hangover, panic attacks and a painful thud as they land back in reality.