New Phase in the Saga

The reception Barak was accorded upon returning to the party chairmanship was not at all reminiscent of the drama that accompanied Peretz's election in November 2005.

Ehud Barak's campaign to take over the Labor Party was completed even before Judge Amnon Strashnov announced the winner. In the eyes of Barak and his associates, that was a minor detail. They hastened to establish facts on the ground, like a rooster on his trash heap. At 2 A.M. Wednesday morning Barak strode to the chairman's bureau, opened the door and sat down on the chair. He placed his arms on the desk in a lordly way, stretching them as widely as possible, as though trying to mark territory. An arrogant smile of victory played on his lips. It was understandable. For a year and a half he had been boycotted and shunned by the previous party chairman, Defense Minister Amir Peretz. He was forbidden to attend Knesset faction meetings, and he was not invited to the meetings of "our ministers." All his attempts to get close to Peretz were repulsed. Now he is here and Peretz is there. As he modeled his smiling silent pose for the cameras, Danny, a party worker, was summoned, screwdriver in hand, to the wall outside the office. With one skilled stroke he pried off the glass plaque bearing the engraving, "MK Amir Peretz, party chairman."

A few hours earlier, as the polling samples were being reported, Avraham Burg phoned Barak. "Tonight!" he urged the newly elected chairman. "Go there tonight!" On the night of the primaries in 2001, Burg decided to wait until the legal petition submitted against him by MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was clarified. This noble gesture lost him the party chairmanship, and to this day is considered one of the biggest farces in the party's history. "Go there tonight!" Burg shouted at Barak.

The old Barak would have set out to party headquarters and, on the way, told his supporters to get there pronto. But there is a new Barak: The Barak who shares, who is great at teamwork. He invited to his office the ministers and MKs who had supported him, sat them in a semi-circle in front of him, and waited patiently until MK Shelly Yachimovich arrived. He handed out copies of his victory speech and asked to hear their opinions. Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog and Yachimovich scribbled a few comments, and then everyone set off for the Hatikva quarter, apart from Yachimovich, who went home. Nili Priel, Barak's companion, also sat there, between National Infrastructures Minister Ben-Eliezer and Herzog. Apparently, she plays a more central role in Barak's political activities than would appear from the outside.

The reception Barak was accorded upon returning to the party chairmanship was not at all reminiscent of the drama that accompanied Peretz's election in November 2005. Perhaps this is because it was diluted by the presidential election a few hours later, perhaps the whole matter is a little shopworn for Barak and does not particularly excite him, or perhaps this party is thoroughly fed up with anointing new leaders. The cheers that accompanied his entry and his speech were a bit forced. Even the ministers and the MKs who crowded around him on the stage, threatening to topple it, did not radiate ecstasy.

What was evident, though, was their relief. They gazed at Barak the way a person trapped in a burning building gazes at the firefighter who has come to rescue him. Barak rescued them from the bitter fate that awaited them had MK Ami Ayalon won. Anyone who thinks this race was between Barak and Ayalon is naive. The real struggle, for life or death, was between Ben-Eliezer and Ayalon. Ben-Eliezer was fighting for his life: by every means, by every method. For better and for worse. He knew that if Ayalon won, he would be first on the new chairman's hit list. In Ayalon's eyes, Ben-Eliezer symbolizes everything bad in the Labor Party, and when Ayalon talks about "the grave phenomena in the party," he is referring mainly to Ben-Eliezer. Now Ayalon has been left with the words, and Ben-Eliezer with the party.

'PM in the making'

One of Barak's close associates used the phrase "prime minister in the making" to describe how Barak sees himself in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. There is no doubt that Barak is entering the Defense Ministry only to be a supra-chief of staff. This will come naturally to him and will require no effort. He is going for the prime ministership, as soon as next year.

In the past he has spoken about establishing a new, improved One Israel party. Barak believes that in the electoral space between Meretz and Yisrael Beiteinu he could collect 35 Knesset seats: Some are in Kadima, some in the Pensioners Party, a few are in the Likud or in MK Rabbi Michael Melchior's Meimad. Barak understands that the current Labor Party is not a winning trademark. It must be decked out in different garb, and given some makeup and a face-lift to create the appearance of a new center party that will rake in 40 Knesset seats.

A scenario like this will pose a cruel dilemma for opposition leader Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu: to stand alone with the Likud, or to go for a similar merger with the right-wing parties. These are two bad possibilities: Even now, when the government is going through such difficult times, the Likud doesn't have more than 30 Knesset seats in the polls. However, joining up with a faction like National Union-National Religious Party will make the Likud's positions more extreme and push away centrist voters.

Barak is convinced only he can defeat Netanyahu in the next elections. He knows him better than anyone else: his weaknesses and his strengths. He defeated him in 1999, but that was a piece of cake at the time. Anyone would have beaten Benjamin Netanyahu. A year from now, Barak as defense minister could be very popular. But he could also find himself in less than ideal circumstances. The Defense Ministry is sometimes a two-edged sword. The higher the expectations for Barak are - and in the security realm they clearly are sky-high - the deeper the disappointment is liable to be.

Barak aspires to be the main axis in Olmert's government. As a strong defense minister, he will be able to maneuver between the prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who is responsible for the strategic dialogue with the United States, and Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is busy with Iranian affairs. The problem is that with so much maneuvering, Barak is liable to discover that he too is being maneuvered. Even in his weakness, Olmert is a far better politician than Barak, as proven in the race for the presidency. Notwithstanding, in the Barak saga, he failed. He could have had Barak a year and a half ago at a minimal price, had he only brought him into his government even as a minister without portfolio. Barak wanted this and Olmert wanted this, but it didn't work out.

Barak's associates think that Olmert, inspired by Kadima MK Haim Ramon, toyed with Barak and intentionally leaked reports of his intention to appoint Barak as defense minister, but only to keep him simmering on a low flame and to stop him from criticizing the prime minister. Now he is getting Barak at top price: not as an ally and not as a partner, but rather as a political rival who is casting covetous eyes on his chair, and will not hesitate to topple him when convenient.