Grinning through each reversal, the ever-bumbling, deeply unpopular Ehud Barak maneuvers to remain a political force in Israel and its leading voice to the West
Early this morning, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called a Knesset news conference on very short notice to announce that he was leaving the Labor Party—the party that up until that moment he had led. The move had been planned and executed just the way that Barak likes to do things: It was a total surprise to friends and foes alike. “Absolute secrecy, exactly like they used to do in Sayeret Matkal,” bragged one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aides, referring to the IDF’s elite unit, in which Netanyahu served under Barak in the early 1970s.
Comparing himself to David Ben Gurion and Ariel Sharon, Barak announced that he would be leaving the Labor party along with another minister and three other Knesset members to establish a new center-Zionist “Independence Party,” which would remain part of Netanyahu’s government. The move was planned in secret by Barak and Netanyahu, and it immediately shored up the governing Likud coalition by depriving the left-wing members of the Labor Party, which Barak left behind, of any leverage against the prime minister. The three remaining Labor ministers in the Netanyahu government reacted by immediately quitting it.
While Sharon’s split from the Likud to form Kadima in 2005 was a move made to advance a particular political agenda, many observers saw Barak’s maneuver as a characteristic piece of selfishness whose intended beneficiary was Barak himself. And it will likely further lower the reputation of Israel’s most widely loathed public figure. A few months ago, a panel of journalists and experts was convened by the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’ir to select the most hated Israeli. Out of 50 contestants—including Netanyahu and other politicians and media personalities—the hands-down winner was Barak.
Such mocking disregard might surprise non-Israelis. Barak enjoys enormous respect in the international community, where he is almost universally considered to be the most responsible and serious member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. And because the widely disliked Avigdor Lieberman is Israel’s foreign minister, Barak also serves as Israel’s de facto diplomat-in-chief; last month, he made his ninth visit to the United States in three years. Barak remains the Obama Administration’s main point of contact in Israel’s government, and, although his relationship with President Bill Clinton has been thorny at times, these days both Clintons (including the now-more important one, Hillary) seem to think highly of him. Nearly all of the relevant administration officials—including Dennis Ross, now Clinton’s special envoy for the region, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—have known and respected Barak for two decades and clear time on their schedules for him whenever he passes through Washington.
And yet within Israel, the verdict of Ha’ir’s unpopularity contest surprised no one. Barak is now enjoying unparalleled status as a public punching bag; indeed, it is doubtful that any other Israeli politician has achieved lower popularity in recent years—quite a feat, given the competition from figures like the brutish Lieberman, the corrupt and incompetent Ehud Olmert, and the blinkered leadership of Shas. The contempt in which Barak is held is even more astonishing when one considers his pedigree: He is one of the three most decorated officers in the history of the IDF and holds a bachelor’s degree in physics and math and a master’s degree in engineering-economic systems from Stanford University. He is even, some claim, a very capable amateur pianist. But all of his credentials and talents have never translated to more than a rudimentary ability to connect with people. Barak, an oft-told joke goes, will one day commit suicide by leaping from his IQ to his EQ.
Indeed, dislike for the current defense minister has become so ingrained in the Israeli psyche that his own political handlers have tried to ride the wave rather than fight it: Two years ago, when Barak’s campaign for prime minister ran into a ditch during Knesset elections, his aides fought back with a series of advertisements portraying Barak as “not a sahbak”—the Arabic word meaning friend or “man of the people”—but as “a leader.” The meaning was clear: You might not want to make small talk with Barak at a party, or invite him over to watch soccer on TV, but you might at least trust him to be a responsible grown-up.
The ads did little good. Labor won only 13 Knesset seats (out of 120)—an all-time low for the party. And these days, the most common expression describing Barak is another Arabic term: ahabal, an idiot or fool. In November, Ofer Eini—a member of Histadrut, Barak’s own party—lobbed the now-infamous insult at Barak during a television interview. Eini was responding to a question about the scandal du jour, that Barak’s wife, Nili Barak-Priel, had been caught employing an illegal maid from the Philippines. “Barak has this quality: He never misses a mistake,” claimed Eini. “You’re a member of the government. What the hell do you bring a Philippine worker for? Employ an Israeli one. You should set an example. You need to be an ahabal to do such a thing, really! You know it’s against the law. Did you think that they wouldn’t catch you? Well, they did.” Eini’s language was harsh, but the expression stuck, summing up what large swaths of the Israeli public believe to be an inglorious and costly string of mistakes, both personal and public.
“There’s something slightly autistic about him,” admits a senior official in Israel’s defense administration, who has known Barak for decades. “He hardly listens to criticism, least of all when he’s convinced that he’s right and everybody else is wrong.” Still, one-on-one, Barak is very convincing and, until very recently, public opinion polls showed an interesting pattern: Most Israelis trusted him as a defense minister, though not as a possible prime minister.
Now almost no one trusts him, in either role.
By all accounts, Barak’s problems began a decade ago, during his term as prime minister, which is widely seen by Israelis as an unqualified disaster. After an unprecedented 12-point victory over Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1999, Barak managed to squander nearly all of his public support outside the Labor Party within 20 months as prime minister during which he delivered only one crucial, strategic decision: the unilateral withdrawal from Southern Lebanon, which ended 18 years of Israeli occupation. But he then promised to try and achieve regional peace “in 15 months”—and failed miserably. Negotiations with Syria reached a dead end, and the July 2000 Camp David peace summit with the Palestinians famously achieved nothing. Barak went to Camp David supported by only a quarter of Knesset members, and he avoided an immediate ouster only because the summit was held during the Knesset’s summer recess. The peace talks failed not because of Barak, but because Yasser Arafat refused to compromise—a conclusion supported by Bill Clinton, who gave full backing to Barak’s accusations against the PLO chairman. But Arafat can’t have been encouraged by the prospect of compromise with a leader who was clearly a political lame duck. Barak’s string of political failures got even longer two months later, when the second Intifada broke out, plunging the country into nightmarish violence and leading most Israelis to blame the prime minister for being both naïve and unprepared.
Barak was able to make a political comeback—of sorts. After the IDF’s fiasco during the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Amir Peretz, then head of the Labor Party and minister of defense, was widely criticized as unfit for his job. In May 2007, Barak quickly maneuvered him out of both the Labor leadership and the defense ministry, taking his place in Ehud Olmert’s government. Now Barak had a new problem: During his six years out of government, he had been mainly occupied with his flourishing business career. His affluence wasn’t easily accepted by Israeli voters, who generally believe that the leader of what is still supposed to be a workers’ party should not be worth millions of dollars (and be seen flaunting his wealth). To be fair, Barak’s focus on his business career while out of office was no different from Netanyahu’s (and was certainly less outrageous than Olmert’s). But for Barak, an image of ostentatious luxury was quite damaging—and was not helped by his purchase of a $10 million apartment at Tel Aviv’s most luxurious high-rise. Whatever sympathy and forgiveness he received from the Israeli electorate upon his return was soon replaced by contempt.
It didn’t take long for Barak and Olmert to grab for each other’s throats. Serving in the same government, the former friends quickly found each other intolerable. Olmert became embroiled in a series of corruption scandals (he is now standing trial for some of these), and Barak eventually demanded his resignation, forcing the prime minister to retire. But even before this final break, it seemed impossible for Olmert and Barak to agree on anything. In February 2009, Olmert refused to surrender to Barak’s pressure and approve a deal with Hamas in which Israel would release a thousand Palestinian prisoners in return for Gilad Shalit. When Israel invaded parts of the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, Barak’s resistance prevented Olmert from gambling on a full-scale reoccupation of the Strip, which Olmert had hoped would lead to the final defeat of Hamas in Gaza. At this point, there emerged a fierce—and still ongoing—argument between Barak and Olmert, hard to decipher because of restrictions by Israeli military censorship, about the decision-making process before certain Israeli actions abroad, which international media organizations have assumed refers to the successful bombing of a Syrian nuclear plant in September 2007, which Olmert is said to have championed, and Barak, it is implied, opposed.
Yet after Olmert stepped down as prime minister, it began to appear that the only Israeli politician that Barak could get along with was himself. When Tzipi Livni, Olmert’s successor as head of the Kadima party, tried to form a new coalition, Barak did not go out of his way to help her. During the election campaign, he publicly insulted Livni by calling her by “Tzipora”—her full name, but also widely seen as an anachronistic grandmotherly moniker—in a radio interview. He notably withheld even cursory approval for Livni’s performance while trying to raise the same argument Hillary Clinton first used against Barack Obama, asking, in political advertisements, “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. Who do you want answering the phone?” The answer of the Israeli electorate seemed clear: anybody but you.
And so, the defense minister’s new image has gradually consolidated: arrogant, aloof, condescending, a habitual intriguer against his fellow ministers and political partners who is constantly accused of corruption, although, unlike many of his colleagues, he has never been indicted for any crime. Even his experience in defense matters—his greatest public asset—has evaporated in the eyes of most voters. His personal friction with Olmert prevented him from playing a bigger role in that government, and his public support has collapsed during Netanyahu’s term.
Yet in spite of his obvious political weakness—or because of it—his personal relationship with Netanyahu is surprisingly good. Both men, each of whom had an unpleasant term as prime minister during the 1990s, seem to have gotten beyond their past confrontations, perhaps brought together by shared antipathy for their fellow politicians and for the press. As Netanyahu’s point man in the United States diplomatic and defense establishments, Barak’s importance is much greater than his party’s role in the coalition might suggest. As a result, Netanyahu has given Barak almost unlimited freedom to deal with military issues and has listened to most of the defense minister’s advice regarding the peace process.
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