Analysis |

What Ehud Barak Really Wants, Even if He Won't Admit It

While Netanyahu had the entire political establishment chasing its tail this week, Ehud Barak came back – and with a vengeance. Will he spoil Gantz's party?

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Gif: Ehud Barak pitches an army tent as Ashkenazi, Ya'alon, Gantz and Lapid watch.
Illustration. Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The bizarre story of the move to roll back the dissolution of the Knesset belongs more to the realm of pathology than to politics. A person’s body, right after death, is sometimes capable of showing movement: An eyelid might flutter, an arm might tremble, a finger may twitch. But that does not make the deceased a living being. The 21st Knesset, which lawfully truncated its own brief life, also cannot return from the dead.

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The legal and political feasibility of such a move does not exist. Even Likud cabinet members – among them Tourism Minister Yariv Levin – did not give this initiative, if one can call it that, an iota of a chance. And yet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who realizes there’s an increasing probability that he won’t do so well in the do-over election into which he’s dragging the entire country, has made the whole system chase its tail to the point of exhaustion.

Ostensibly, the attempt to call off the vote scheduled for September 17 had nothing to do with him. There were no names or fingerprints on it until Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein volunteered to take ownership of the initiative. After Channel 12’s Amit Segal reported on Sunday that something was afoot (Maariv’s Ben Caspit mentioned the move in passing last week), the resident of Balfour Street instructed Likud members not to relate to the whole issue and to brush it off. But then Edelstein’s initiative came to light, and the talking points changed. Likud ministers and MKs were told to summon all their strength and intellectual prowess to stand behind the horrific idea. After all it’s important for the state, it will prevent a waste of money, the security situation is extremely volatile – and the winning argument, parroted by the Yoav Kishes and Miki Zohars of the party: Enough already with this Bibi hatred!

I told Edelstein this week that I found it hard to believe that he wasn’t dispatched on this mission by Netanyahu himself. You’re the Knesset speaker, you’re the first person we’d expect to oppose turning the Knesset and its decisions into a doormat in the service of the royal family. “You’d be surprised,” he said. “I came up with this of my own volition. When I presented it to Netanyahu for the first time, he dismissed it, saying there was no chance it would work.”

Look, I persisted, so far, we haven’t heard a word from him. When the whole effort fails, you’ll find yourself being hung out to dry as someone trying to spearhead a non-democratic act and a rule breaker. But his hands will be clean!

“I took that into account,” Edelstein said slowly, “but I owed it to myself, so that I could look at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t stand a situation in which serious people from nearly all the Knesset’s factions came to me and urged me to do something to prevent this superfluous election.”

Well, now it’s clear that the whole thing’s over, I said. But he thought it wasn’t yet. Maybe in the next week or two something will happen, maybe Kahol Lavan will take fright at the reappearance of Ehud Barak on the scene, and reconsider the idea of halting the election? If they don’t, they don’t.

Venom in the plenum?

The sluggish, anemic behavior of Kahol Lavan’s leaders has succeeded in turning a vigorous, sharp-tongued old man who passed retirement age a decade ago into a hot political commodity. Ehud Barak is bringing the additive – some would say the drug – that this miserable election campaign so desperately lacks: a combination of energy, aggression and venom.

So while Netanyahu finds himself slip-sliding away – as evidenced by his desperate efforts to avert the election that he himself called – the forces working against him are rejuvenating and growing stronger.

Netanyahu has never experienced a political campaign in which, on the one hand, so many generals are firing at him – including four former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff and numerous ex-brass – while on the other, he is trying to find an escape route, via dubious legislative tricks and dirty maneuvers more suited to a leader like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While we cannot infer anything about the end of the play from its first act – there are still 80 days ahead of us – we can certainly anticipate some interesting developments.

Ehud Barak, June 26, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

The timing of Barak’s announcement of his return to the political arena as head of a new party is ideal from his perspective:

• The attempt to reverse the disbanding of the Knesset isn’t gaining steam, and in fact seems to be doomed; only extreme circumstances, like a war or a natural disaster, are liable to resuscitate it. Barak, in his aggressive style, has buried it even deeper.

• His press conference, which he convened on Wednesday – two hours after Benny Gantz deigned to finally come out of the bushes and address the attempt by the prime minister and Knesset speaker to assassinate Israeli democracy – highlighted the differences between them. There’s a demand for Barak’s assertive, determined message among people who don’t see themselves voting for Kahol Lavan, even if they don’t particularly like the person delivering it.

• On Thursday some 1,000 members of the Meretz convention voted for the party’s leader, selecting Nitzan Horowitz, and next Tuesday there will be a primary election for the Labor Party leadership. When Barak says he isn’t looking to run alone but is seeking connections and mergers in the center-left camp, he is conveying a message to the voters of both parties that could influence their decisions. One assumes that Barak preferred for Meretz to elect Nitzan Horowitz and would rather that Labor choose Itzik Shmuli.

Barak is the only person in the country who can say the following to Netanyahu: “As your former commander, I’m telling you: Bibi, you can no longer remain at the helm of the government. Your time as a political leader is over.”

His return to politics at age 77, accompanied by IDF Maj. Gen. (res.) Yair Golan – who, even when still in uniform, didn’t hesitate to call out the increasing brutalization, racism and extremism in Israeli society – will likely have an impact on the entire center-left bloc. Kahol Lavan will be pushed even more toward the center-right and try to do what it barely managed to do last time: attract moderate right-wing voters.

Barak, who is perceived as a leftist, won’t be able to do that. On August 1, the deadline for submitting slates for the September election, he hopes to find himself at the head of a left-wing conglomerate that includes Labor and Meretz. Perhaps Tzipi Livni will join him, along with others who are waiting to see how things play out over the next 33 days.

Me, a leftist?

Haim Ramon, an old rival of Ehud Barak, went on the air on Thursday, and reached into his arsenal to let loose against the comeback kid. If one disregards the emotional baggage from Ramon’s monologue, his arguments are substantial, worthy of being heard and considered. Ultimately, it’s the voters who will decide what happens, not him.

Once, during one of the hundreds of spats they’ve had over the last 25 years, Ramon lashed out at Barak over some issue. Barak later commented to an interlocutor about Ramon: “Tell me, does he have any self-awareness at all? Back when I was marching 200 kilometers in order to blow up power stations in different countries, he was walking 200 meters in Givatayim to hang up posters of the [Labor] Young Guard attacking Peres.”

What a marvelous response. Let’s hope we get to hear more of these two tearing each other apart in the media. We too deserve to enjoy ourselves.

Despite his (relative) modesty at Wednesday’s press conference and in interviews, Barak has not abandoned his ambition/passion of returning to the Prime Minister’s Office. He was careful not to declare this or even hint at it (the novice Yair Golan, the former IDF general who is joining Barak in his as-yet unnamed party, did this for him on Thursday), but when I asked him how he envisioned the ideal map of the parties in September, his answer was: “One united list, including all the center-left parties, running together in this election. Such a bloc will not only not lose a single vote, it will also not expend any energy on internal struggles, only in external ones.”

And who will head this bloc? Barak doesn’t want to talk about that, but we know him. Since the chances of this initiative taking shape are slim, Barak will make do with option B: leading the left-wing bloc, becoming minister of defense or foreign minister in the next government. This time he won’t sit with Netanyahu. He’s not the same Bibi he was in 2009-2013, he says. One can believe him. Even a cynic like him, who collaborated with Netanyahu for years and even dismantled the Labor Party so as to continue serving as Netanyahu’s minister of defense, has his limits. There must be limits.

“They say I’m a leftist,” Barak told me on Wednesday, a few hours after his press conference. “How am I more left-wing than Gantz, Ashkenazi or Lapid? Maybe in some respects I’m to the left of Ya’alon, but if Yoaz Hendel was not in Kahol Lavan now, I’d happily take him.”

He believes that his sharp and occasionally excitable tone will force the leaders of Kahol Lavan to make more incisive statements and be less nice. That will only be for the best. He hopes that if the campaign is two-pronged, with him and Gantz leading, the latter’s colleagues won’t attack him. “Last time I tried to achieve my goal through tweets and posts, but I failed. Maybe I’ll get there this time.”

I asked him what will happen if the union he envisions – either the larger or smaller one – doesn’t come together, and whether he would abandon the race so as not to split the camp and cause votes to go to waste. “When I start running, I don’t stop” he replied. “But I’ll do everything I can to join hands and prevent the wasting of votes.”

Alongside Barak at the press conference sat Golan, law professor Yifat Bitton and billionaire entrepreneur Kobi Richter. In the last election, Bitton ran with the Gesher party, with Orli Levi-Abekasis. But they fell short, and the list remained outside the Knesset. Now she’s joined someone whose whole existence symbolizes the exact opposite of what Levi-Abekasis and her party stood for – just one more piece of evidence of the death of ideology. Bitton is a prominent social activist who wants to be in the Knesset, and do her best when she arrives. The platform, or “the procedure,” as it was called by another Barak nemesis, former MK Eitan Cabel, is less important. The main thing is to get there, even if the vehicle is an inveterate capitalist.

Kobi Richter brings with him mainly money, piles of it, as well as connections to tycoons and other members of the upper 0.1 percent, among whom he lives and operates. During the last election campaign, he was often seen at the headquarters of Kahol Lavan, with Gantz and Ashkenazi. He helped get them donors and guarantors. Now, apparently disappointed with them, he’ll offer his services to Barak, an old and close friend. Since 2016, Richter has been the head of the non-profit organization Darkenu, which he founded and heavily financed. He left this role two weeks ago. Even now, three years after it was founded, no one knows what Darkenu is, just why it was established and what the hell it wants from our difficult lives. Maybe now things are becoming clearer.

Margin of legitimacy

Four months ago, a blink of an eye really, Benny Gantz was the hope of the left-center, the shining knight on a white horse, the savior on a motorbike, you name it. His much-anticipated maiden speech as a politician was broadcast live on all possible media channels. Someone compared him to the young Bill Clinton, no less. He surprised all the doubters when he managed to unite under his wings his former commanding officers Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, bringing on board Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party as well. He’s no sucker, we said.

Benny Gantz, June 26, 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani

The 35 Knesset seats swept up by Kahol Lavan were an unprecedented and huge achievement for such a young party. When a new election was called a short time later, it was seen as a second chance, a golden opportunity to attain power under more amenable conditions: The right-wing bloc under Netanyahu had lost an important component, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Netanyahu’s pre-trial hearing was fast approaching and legislation intended to provide him with immunity one way or another was unlikely to be passed. Netanyahu looked like someone who’d lost his magic touch, someone whose time was running out.

And then, in a flash, Barak was back and Gantz had become outdated. He comes off as yesterday’s news, faded and tired. The buzz is gone. The person who made him passé is none other than the oldest and most veteran on the block. Gantz is the first to admit this. He saw how Barak edged him out of the headlines this week, taking command of the public agenda. But he believes that the stardust will soon settle and things will return to their course, with voters understanding that ultimately, the competition is between him and Netanyahu, between Kahol Lavan and Likud, the two largest parties.

Barak is an experienced man, say people in Gantz’s circle, but his lust for power is as strong as his lofty and Zionist aspiration to save the homeland. He struggled to conceal his desire to return to the Prime Minister’s Office, but Yair Golan blew his cover. Barak would do well to make sure his own camp is in order, they say, before he begins preaching to us how to behave.

Regarding Barak’s chief argument, that it doesn’t matter how large the party is, what counts is having the largest possible bloc, people in Kahol Lavan say: Utter nonsense. The bloc is important, but if it’s split the way Barak wants it, with 20 seats for us and 20 for him, with the Likud getting 30 or more, we’ll lose our margin of legitimacy when we go to the president seeking to form a coalition.

One or two less Knesset seats don’t really matter, as was proved in 2009, when Kadima under Tzipi Livni won more seats than Likud (28 versus 27). Netanyahu was tasked by President Shimon Peres with forming a government, however, since he had behind him a large enough bloc to prevent Livni from doing so. But if the difference had been 10 Knesset seats, Livni would have been given the first opportunity. The argument between the two different schools of thought will continue right up to the election. Even now it’s become tedious.

Let the kids play

We’ve been there many times before: three contenders, with two of them balancing each other out and the third taking the prize. In the Labor Party’s leadership primary, to be held on Tuesday, two of the contenders are Itzik Shmuli and Stav Shaffir – “the kids,” as they’re called by party members. Their average age is 36, in contrast to 67-year-old Amir Peretz, who is running for the fifth time (yes!) since 2005. Peretz is like the guy from the joke: Whenever there’s a good fight, he’ll show up.

The younger contenders grew up in the same crib: the protest tents erected during the social protest of the summer of 2011. They both continue to be in engaged in social-justice issues.

Shaffir was the one who brought the two of them into the public limelight and pushed them right to the top ranks of the party. Shmuli is deeper, more thorough, blander. There is something old man-like about him, reminiscent of the folks in the now-defunct Mapai party. She is more colorful, noisy, resorting to gimmicks a bit too often. She’ll enter a Knesset committee meeting and raise a ruckus, have herself photographed and then leave, posting it all on Facebook. On the other hand, no one disputes that she has a lot of support and a bunch of fans.

Shmuli is more popular among a broader range of sectors, but suffers from problems she doesn’t have: His years-long bet on Avi Nissenkorn, former head of the Histadrut labor federation, flopped and hit him in the face. Nissenkorn left, and joined up with Kahol Lavan, and as is customary in workers’ unions, the bon ton is now to hate him and anyone associated with him. All those identified with the departed personality are ostracized. Which is one reason the current Histadrut chairman, Arnon Bar-David, has announced that he’ll support Peretz.

The prevailing opinion in Labor is that the real battle is between Peretz and his erstwhile ally Shmuli. The former is a wily veteran of many campaigns, experienced and organized (although none of that helped when he competed against Avi Gabbay for party leadership two years ago); the latter is well-liked, well-respected and evokes consensus. Internal surveys conducted among 60,000 voters support this opinion. Shaffir trails behind them both.

Peretz could have started his campaign on a better footing if he hadn’t dragged the party through a Via Dolorosa of schemes, agonizing and superfluous maneuvers in the last weeks. On the other hand, the fight that erupted between Shaffir and Shmuli regarding who should withdraw their candidacy helps Peretz present himself as the responsible adult. That’s the narrative he’s been broadcasting in recent days: His two rivals are good people, “worthy” opponents, but they lack the maturity and experience needed to guide a party mired in such a deep crisis. The spat between them “does not add dignity to the party” – says the man who missed no opportunity to fight anyone above or below him in Labor (from which he angrily resigned twice), as well as in Livni’s Hatnuah – and also shows that they’re not there yet.

For his part, Shmuli erred when, from the stage at the party convention on Sunday, he called on Shaffir to withdraw her candidacy and join forces with him. He should have known by now who he’s dealing with. She was insulted and immediately lashed out at him. Now they hate each other even more.

The main beneficiary of all this, again, is Peretz. If Shaffir does withdraw, most of her voters will go to Shmuli, who’ll win by a knockout. As long as she’s in the picture, splitting the base she shares with her colleague from the protest tent, Peretz has a good chance of winning. The morning after the convention, a WhatsApp initiative was launched by a group of party members, headed by veteran activist Talma Alyagon: It called on the two kids to decide once and for all which of them is running so as not to allow Peretz to win.

Shmuli picked up the gauntlet. He called Alyagon and through her passed a message on to Shaffir: He proposed that they finance two separate in-depth surveys, to be conducted by two experienced pollsters. Also, that the young pretenders to the crown will sign a binding agreement stipulating that whoever comes in second in the surveys will withdraw from the leadership race and support the other on Tuesday. The proposal was sent to Shaffir on Tuesday. By Thursday evening no answer had been received.

Next week, if no response is forthcoming, he’ll turn to uncommitted voters and explain clearly so they understand, that every vote for Shaffir is a vote for Peretz. Anyone wanting change, renewal or a new guard must take this into account when he or she arrives at the ballot box.

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