Ehud Barak Didn't Flee

While it is easy to criticize the former prime minister, we should never forget his decision to withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon

Ehud Barak speaking at a conference of Labor Party activists in Tel Aviv, January 2017.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Ehud Barak has earned the criticism directed against him honestly. His accusers have plenty to work with. Throughout his frenetic political career, he left behind quite a few mishaps and casualties, disappointments and disappointed. There is not enough space here to review his complex character or list the question marks hanging over his enigmatic personality.

The most relevant at the moment is actually technical, even before we deal with the essence: Even if we assume Barak is interested in returning to politics, it is really not clear how he intends to do so, or whether it is even feasible. But one thing is absolutely clear: He has returned to the public discourse; he is being talked about.

Within this discussion, criticism still has a place of honor. But it is worth making a clear distinction between critics on the right and the left. Those on the right are mostly afraid of him; they are trembling in fear. This is only natural, of course. After all, they – with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at their helm – remember all too well the resounding defeat they suffered at Barak’s hands in the 1999 election.

They will never forget the last time a powerful candidate from the left challenged the right-wing hegemony, and soundly defeated them while gaining the trust of 56 percent of voters. This is burned into their consciousness. They are post-traumatic, even if they have relaxed a little since then. It is easier to deal with the likes of Shelly Yacimovich and Isaac Herzog.

The criticism from the left comes from other sources. Psychological analyses of his personality are less important in this instance; ideas and facts more so. Barak’s life and work are far from representing social democracy. Previously, he forged a damaging political alliance with Netanyahu, and reached his nadir when he deserted the Labor Party with a gang of Knesset-seat thieves to enable the continued rule of the right. There is more, including, of course, the controversy over the Camp David Summit in 2000 and its ramifications.

One is allowed to attack – and even not to forgive. But when yet another serious charge is casually thrown in Barak’s direction, it is time to stop. Not only because public decency requires us to do so, but because intellectual honesty and historical justice do so, too.

This chutzpah was demonstrated perfectly by Dan Shilon’s opinion piece in Yedioth Ahronoth this week. After pouring scorning on Barak and enumerating all his flaws and sins, Shilon wrote: “All these are overshadowed by his great escape as [IDF] chief of staff, with the entire Israel Defense Forces, from Lebanon.”

Excuse me? Let us set aside for a moment the basic and embarrassing factual error that casts doubt on the writer’s ability to publish a serious opinion piece in a serious newspaper. (Barak took the IDF out of Lebanon as prime minister in 2000; the withdrawal was overseen on the military front by then-Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, but, as is customary in democratic countries, the decision and responsibility for it rested solely with the political leadership.) Responsible people, certainly those on the left, have to repeat loudly and clearly: Israel and its army did not flee Lebanon. Israel and its military withdrew wisely – and outrageously belatedly – from the occupied territory in Lebanon, and prepared to defend the state and its citizens from the recognized international border.

Over 18 years in Lebanon, Israel and its army wrote a new and important chapter in the march of folly, and sacrificed thousands of people there in vain. The only prime minister who dared stop this insanity was Ehud Barak. He deserves the Israel Prize, the Israel Defense Prize, the Medal of Valor, Medal of Courage and Medal of Distinguished Service combined.

Barak did it because, alongside all his limitations, he was also given several small virtues, too: Courage; leadership ability; analytical ability; and strategic vision.

Shilon wrote in his article that Barak was the greatest failure of any prime minister ever. But with the withdrawal from Lebanon, Barak actually placed himself among the few exceptional prime ministers: David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon – who all knew how to evacuate territories that had been captured in war in order to improve Israel’s strategic situation.

Perhaps this is what really frightens the right more than anything else about Barak’s image and the possibility of his return.