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The Big Winners of the Israeli Left's Surprise Merger

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Illustration: A horse cut in half, Peretz and Levi-Abekasis ride one side while Horowitz, Shaffir and Barak ride the other. Shmuli stands between them.
Illustration.Credit: Amos Biderman

Schadenfreude has never had it so good. Ehud Barak, who lives for political (formerly military) October surprises, was inexpressibly pleased Thursday at the failure of the pundits and the politicos. “You called on me to drop out, to close up shop; you wrote that there was no wind in my sails,” he jibed at me. “That’s the problem with the media. It’s biased and conformist. Netanyahu is sitting there not thanks to his virtues, but by our graces, including of the media.”

What’s due Barak in the current round we won’t take from him. He kept his word. He committed to work for “hookups,” and he did just that, even at the price of dropping – having no other choice – his personal demands. The big bang he tried to foment ended in a still, small voice, the megalomaniacal dreams shattered noisily. There’s no doubt that when he entered the fray he harbored great expectations and had far-reaching plans, but he snapped out of it in time, faced the music and drew conclusions.

If this column had predicted a week ago that we would find Barak in the 10th slot on the Meretz slate, under the leadership of Nitzan Horowitz, the men in the white coats would have been pounding on Haaretz’s doors. Horowitz is the big winner in this story. He displayed impressive political skills, paid a minimal price and created a structure that Meretz hasn’t known for two decades: leading, consolidated, confident. The traditional cry of “gevalt” – Yiddish for SOS – will this time be the lot of the big sister, the Labor Party, which was left out, shamed and abandoned.

“Our preference was to go with Labor, but the moment Amir [Peretz] closed that door, another option remained, which is Meretz,” Barak said Thursday. “Even now we’ll be happy if others join – [Labor MK] Itzik Shmuli, for example. This is just the first shot. We’ve agitated the system, we’ll start to attack Netanyahu with a different level of focus, a different energy, a different level of commitment.”

On Wednesday evening, hours before the political deal was struck, Barak appeared at a parlor meeting in the affluent community of Savyon near Tel Aviv in front of hundreds of people, most of them Labor voters. Outside, someone tried to disturb the proceedings with a megaphone, and at one point a cannon fired a shower of banknotes into the air bearing portraits of Barak and Jeffrey Epstein. “We thought it was Likud,” Barak said, “but it turned out that Amir had sent them. He’s behaving despicably.”

hud Barak, Stav Shaffir and Nitzan Horowitz launching their election campaign after announcing new political alliance Democratic Union on July 25, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

That episode certainly didn’t diminish Barak’s motivation to conclude matters with Horowitz during the night. He dropped the demand to get the party’s senior ministerial portfolio if the new outfit enters the government.

“I will be very happy if Amir fails in the [Labor Party] convention next Wednesday. With him there’s nothing left for us to talk about, but there’s still hope that his party will force him to come to us,” Barak said. “Amir founded a quasi-social-welfare niche party, but how different is it from the social principles of MKs like Stav Shaffir [who joined the new slate] and Itzik Shmuli?”

I asked him who the main person was who promoted the merger. “Esawi Freige,” he said without hesitation, referring to the Meretz MK. “He’s clearly the ‘best man,’ more than people think.” Horowitz says the same. It was Freige who set things in motion with his July 23 op-ed in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition urging Barak to apologize to the country’s Arab community for the events of 2000, when the police shot dead 13 demonstrators during Barak’s premiership. Freige then moved things along and held vigorous contacts with all sides; without him this marriage wouldn’t have taken place.

In the past few days, Barak says, intense pressure was put on Meretz by both Kahol Lavan and Labor not to hook up with him under any circumstances. “They’re under stress in both parties,” he said. “It’s clear to me that Peretz is setting himself up to be in Bibi’s government, if it’s established.” And you? – I asked. Barak replied, “I undertake unequivocally that we will not be part of a government with Bibi in any way, stage or form.”

And what will you do in the Knesset? “I’ll be on the Labor, Welfare and Health Committee, where I haven’t yet served. Maybe I’ll even ask to head it.”

Paper walls

Three days ago, Shmuli met with Peretz to try to persuade him to revoke the veto on additional mergers that he agreed on with Orli Levi-Abekasis, whose Gesher party joined forces with Labor last week. “It’s an enlarged One People party,” Shmuli said of the new alliance, referring to a short-lived party Peretz co-founded in 1999. He urged Peretz to end his opposition to a three-way merger with Meretz and Barak. It was like talking to a wall.

In private conversations in recent weeks, Peretz likened Barak to a suicide bomber. “He’s like a person who walks into a room wearing an explosive belt and threatens that if his demands aren’t met, he’ll blow up himself and everyone else,” Peretz said. That may have been true at one time, but now, to continue with the macabre analogy, the belt has been taken off and the potential terrorist has joined the peace movement.

Already back then, Shmuli’s assessment was that if Meretz and Barak merged, and Shaffir joined them, Labor-Gesher might not cross the 3.25-percent electoral threshold to make it into the Knesset. The first part of the equation has been realized. The next part will take place on September 17.

What will be the fate of Shmuli, an outstanding legislator? He won’t enter the Democratic Camp, as the new party formed by Meretz and Barak’s Democratic Israel is called. No way. Certainly not after Shaffir, the legendary rival, beat him to it – guaranteeing herself second place on the slate – clung to the Green Movement, whose existence we’d forgotten about, and as a floor leader will get to put former Labor MK Yael Cohen Paran (who co-directed the green movement) in the eighth slot and Reform-Jewish leader Gilad Kariv in the 11th.

Itzik Shmuli.Credit: \ Moti Milrod

Shaffir carried off a brilliant move on the political chess board. Morally, it might have been better if she hadn’t declared a day earlier, on a radio program, that she wouldn’t run in a different party. Given that she had already wrapped up her agreement with the Democratic Camp, that assertiveness is a bit disturbing.

What are Shmuli’s options? He could join Kahol Lavan, whose leaders would happily welcome him, he could remain in Labor, or not run in the September election. He came out of the meeting with Peretz with the feeling that the Labor chief isn’t committed to the left-wing bloc and to the general interest, but rather wants a slate that will be the swing vote in the coalition talks to form a government and give Benjamin Netanyahu the 61st Knesset seat he so badly needs. (Peretz strongly denies this.)

Peretz certainly won’t say this, but it’s clear he now realizes he made a terrible mistake, not to say shot himself in the head (one last bit of suicide terminology) when he made a deal with Levi-Abekasis stating that after Gesher joined Labor he’d forgo any other merger. There’s no doubt that he sincerely believed that the alliance with Levi-Abekasis would topple the walls and get him votes from the soft right. But no wall seems to have fallen, maybe a plaster drywall in Beit She’an, where Levi-Abekasis was born and where her parents and other relatives live.

The Labor-Gesher union was logical and correct, but slamming the door on other possible partners was irrational. On Labor-Gesher’s best day in the past week, its average number of seats in the polls didn’t top seven. Now, with Shaffir’s departure, which was preceded by Shelly Yacimovich’s departure, and before Shmuli announces his decision next week, the clear horizon that Peretz promised the public in a pathos-laden press conference looks more like an oncoming, lethal tornado.

Bar mitzvah boy

Let’s imagine a situation in which Yitzhak Rabin wasn’t assassinated but was elected prime minister two more times, or Ariel Sharon didn’t suffer a stroke and was reelected in 2006 and 2010, or Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir or Shimon Peres were elected time and again. Would one of them have even considered holding for himself a ridiculous “surprise party” packed with sycophants and gofers for having served as premier 13 years, and one day longer than the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion?

If someone had dared suggest such a thing, Rabin would have turned red with anger, Shamir would have snorted contemptuously, and Sharon would have responded with a piercing look accompanied by a snide remark. Maybe he would have recalled an old army joke: Tie a mule to a tree at the induction center, and if you come back 15 years later, you’ll discover that he’s a lieutenant colonel.

The thought that the premiership, which they and others viewed with holy reverence, is nothing but a long-distance run would shame them. And the position itself. And the legacy.

But not the current incumbent, of course. Like an emperor who’s never sated by the followers of his personality cult, he sprawled in his chair, next to his wife, at an event where politicians and functionaries celebrated his “bar mitzvah.” Like court jesters, two senior Likudniks, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, pranced around him. They were chosen to deliver greetings and give their blessings on behalf of the political wing. Without a doubt, the two of them love the blessed one, adore him, consider him flawless and have never spoken ill of him.

Edelstein did his best. To his credit, he refrained from mentioning the wife, Sara, despite the unwritten but binding protocol on such occasions. But that was apparently his limit. Katz, who followed Edelstein, atoned and compensated for this lapse, big time. He heaped praises on “the Lady” who stands “on the front line” with her mobilized family.

An archive photo of Sara and Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

When Sara’s turn to speak came, she skipped over many achievements that can legitimately be attributed to the husband of the prime minister’s wife, and for some reason focused on a foreign-currency reform that Netanyahu spearheaded in 1998. Emotionally, she related how in her childhood her family would hide dollars “under the floor tiles and behind the curtains” – until Bibi came along and set them free. That’s what filled her with happiness. Needless to say, the associations this evoked among the guests were many and far-reaching.

The political greetings were concluded by MK Shlomo Karhi in the form of a bizarre stream of consciousness packed with scriptural verses and numerological nonsense. He compared Netanyahu, and on more than one level, to nothing less than the patriarch Abraham.

Delight spread across the faces of the couple. Neither the wildest exaggeration nor the most abject kowtowing brings a blush to their cheeks. On the contrary, the bar for the next time only rises.

When will the next time be? Here are some more justifiable reasons to hold a celebration: when Israel’s number of nurses per patient approaches that of other OECD countries; when Israel drops a few notches from its disgraceful place atop the poverty ladder among developed nations; when Hamas is finally “crushed” and not one more missile is fired at the south of the country, as patriarch Benjamin promised in 2009; and when the price of an average apartment is within reach not only of the wealthy and their heirs. All those together, and each separately, would be a reason for a party.

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