Beware the Third Coming of Ehud Barak

The belief that Ehud Barak is the one man who can defeat the right and, if re-elected prime minister, will lead Israel into an era of peace, is wrong on every level

Ehud Barak.
Ofer Vaknin

In his June 8 opinion piece, “Ehud Barak didn't flee,” Uri Misgav tries to portray the former prime minister as an indomitable leader who deserves to be numbered among Israel’s towering figures; as one whose names strikes fear into the right wing, but whom the shortsighted left wing refuses to anoint as its champion. This is a misrepresentation; the very opposite is the case.

Indeed, in 1999, Ehud Barak dealt Benjamin Netanyahu a blow by defeating him in a direct election for the premiership. In the Knesset election that year, however, held concurrently, the right wing-religious bloc won about 10 more seats than the center-left bloc. Barak formed a broad government, but with his amazing political skill, he also managed within 18 months to dismantle it in stages.

As a consequence, in 2001, he had to run again for prime minister, again in a direct election. The result was a crushing defeat, the worst suffered by a candidate in the three personal elections for prime minister: Ariel Sharon beat Barak by a margin of 62.5 to 37.5 of the vote. At the time, Sharon was a typical right winger, the progenitor of dozens of settlements that were built on every lofty hill and under every leafy tree in the territories.

In 2006, Barak [whose name means “lightning” in Hebrew] struck again, defeating Amir Peretz and Ami Ayalon in the primary for Labor Party chairman. The party members who voted for him believed that a new Barak had been born. And then, in 2009, Barak led the party in a historic general election. With him at the helm, Labor suffered the greatest defeat in all its history and all its incarnations, winning the lowest-ever number of seats – 13 (actually 12, but Labor received one more seat thanks to a surplus-vote agreement with Meretz).

Labor emerged from that election as the Knesset’s fourth-largest party, behind Yisrael Beiteinu. Under Barak, the party received only 30 percent of the votes it had under Yitzhak Rabin 15 years earlier.

If I were a right winger, I would be more than eager to see Barak return to the leadership of the center-left. No one has done more damage to the moderate center and left camp than he. Space limitations preclude a full recounting of his deeds – I will try to focus on the major ones.

In the Shepherdstown, West Virginia, conference, in early 2000, Barak began negotiations with Syria toward an agreement on the Golan Heights, under the auspices of U.S. President Bill Clinton. At the last minute, Barak violated a commitment he’d made to Clinton and fled from a historic accord, which would have encompassed conciliation with the entire Arab world of that period: “Fifty-five keffiyeh wearers” were supposed to come to Jerusalem and establish regular relations between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world – in the words of Barak himself.

As Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and later as a cabinet minister, under Rabin, Barak had opposed the Oslo Accord. He also opposed Oslo II (the interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians), and did much to besmirch it, undermine it and bring about its collapse. And in his brief tenure as prime minister, Barak drew praise from leading right-wingers such as former Minister Yitzhak Levy and Ze’ev Hever, the spearhead of settlement construction in the West Bank. According to their testimony, no one built more in the territories than Barak.

But the greatest disaster that Barak inflicted on Israel came in the Camp David conference of July 2000. He dragged the Palestinians and the U.S. administration to the summit meeting with the aid of the illusion he sold them: At Camp David they would “wrap everything up.” There were others – myself among them – who warned him that the “all-or-nothing” method would, in the real world, lead to “nothing,” and in practice to a political and security catastrophe. We suggested to him that he return to the Oslo process and implement the “third phase” of the agreement, which Netanyahu and he himself had avoided doing. But, as usual with Barak, he knew better than everyone else.

On July 28, 2000, during the flight back to Israel following the inevitable failure at Camp David, Aluf Benn, then the diplomatic correspondent of Haaretz [today its editor-in-chief], asked Barak about the fate of the third phase. “It died a natural death,” Barak told him.

That was imprecise. In fact, Barak had liquidated it deliberately, and in so doing, he delivered a death blow to the Oslo agreements. Barak had in fact hooked up with Benjamin Netanyahu, for his own reasons and in his own way, and in practice, as Benn wrote, “The outcome was the same: The third phase was taken off the agenda completely and any territorial change in the West Bank was postponed until the ‘final status,’ that is, until the Messiah comes” (Haaretz English Edition, Dec. 31, 2016). Upon returning to Israel, Barak declared that the conference had failed because “there is no partner.”

That phrase has since become a mantra for Netanyahu and the right wing, and at the same time a lethal obstacle in the path of the center-left. Eldad Yaniv, at the time Barak’s close adviser, recalls that when I heard that unfortunate statement, I recoiled as though I’d been bitten by a snake, and said to him, “Have you all gone mad? You’re unleashing an intifada upon us!”

It wasn’t long before the eruption of the second intifada, which took the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis and thousands of Palestinians. Its escalation engendered the “October disturbances” in 2000, among Israel’s Arab population, in which 12 Arab citizens were killed by the police. These events generated a deep rift between the Arab public and the Jewish public in general, and the Labor Party in particular. Its wounds have still not healed.

In 2007, Barak succeeded Amir Peretz as defense minister in the government of Ehud Olmert. Contrary to Peretz, Barak objected vehemently to a security operation of supreme importance. Only Olmert’s determination brought about the operation’s execution and success, thereby eliminating an existential threat to Israel. [Editor’s note: The author may be referring to what, according to foreign sources, was Israel’s destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.] In 2008, Barak effectively brought about Olmert’s ouster, before the latter was indicted. At the time, Olmert was on the verge of a significant breakthrough in the negotiations he was conducting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But Barak thought he would be able to form an alternative government under his leadership, or win the 2009 election – in which, as already noted, he brought about the worst defeat in Labor’s history.

After that election, Barak preferred to anoint Netanyahu as prime minister, instead of establishing a center bloc with Kadima under Tzipi Livni’s leadership. As such, Barak became in practice Netanyahu’s faithful political gopher.

The Bibi-Barak government was characterized by diplomatic stagnancy and an expansion of construction in the settlements, particularly outside the large settlement blocs. Barak was a partner to Netanyahu’s adventurist plan to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities – which was prevented over time thanks only to the fierce opposition of two chiefs of staff, two Mossad heads and a Shin Bet security service director. When the “danger” loomed that Labor might bolt the Netanyahu government, Barak did not hesitate to split Labor’s Knesset representation, to establish an ephemeral party with four other Labor MKs who also left the party, and to continue serving Netanyahu and strengthening his government.

And a word about Lebanon. As prime minister, Barak decided, with praiseworthy courage, that he would withdraw unilaterally from southern Lebanon, despite the opposition of both the IDF chief of staff and the head of Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. But in May 2000, when Ashkenazi urged that if withdrawal was to take place, it should be both orderly and immediate, emphasizing that Israel’s ally, the South Lebanon Army, was liable to collapse at any moment – Barak refused. The SLA collapsed and the IDF’s disorderly withdrawal was perceived, both by our enemies and within Israel, as a “flight” from Lebanon.

The illusion (not supported by even a single public opinion survey) that Barak can draw votes from the moderate right and will be ready to implement a far-reaching diplomatic agreement, doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

It’s amazing that a few clever tweets by Barak against Netanyahu have prompted a few good people to delude themselves into thinking that there’s yet another “new” Ehud Barak. All this shows is the nullity of the opposition overall and of the Labor Party specifically. In their despair over the political reality, they apparently want to let Barak strike a third time.

Haim Ramon was a longtime political leader, first in the Labor Part and later in Kadima, and served as a minister in the Rabin, Peres, Barak, Sharon and Olmert governments. He also was chairperson of the Histadrut Labor Organization.