By Shmuel Rosner
As the left-leaning Labor party slowly awoke from the shock of winning only 13 seats in Israel’s elections last month (a historical low for the party), Ehud Barak managed to push his party into joining Binyamin Netanyahu’s fledgling right-leaning coalition. His critics paint him as a narcissistic opportunist who is sacrificing his party’s future to save his own career. His supporters claim he is putting the interest of the country before that of the party.
On March 24, the party’s central committee convened to vote on whether to accept or reject Netanyahu’s proposal. The showdown could have led to Barak’s political demise – losing the vote would have effectively ended his stint as party leader. The results of the vote – which Barak won with 58% of the 1,071 attending party members voting in favour of joining the government and 42% voting against – will not only determine the future of the party that ruled Israel in its formative years and essentially created the country as we know it today. It could also determine the future of the country in one of the most pivotal moments of its history.
Those highlighting Barak’s personal motives have a strong case. “It’s desperation meets desperation,” wrote the authoritative columnists of Israel’s biggest selling paper, Yediot Aharonot, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shifer – describing Netanyahu’s desperation for a workable government and Barak’s desperation as a man “who has nothing, not a comfortable chair in the Defence Ministry, not the title of head of opposition,” and threatened by the possibility of being removed as head of his party. Barnea and Shifer point out, as most political commentators did this weekend, Barak’s promise not long ago to serve the country from the opposition. “We are not afraid to sit in the opposition and serve the people from there,” he said in early February.
With Barak’s military record, Israeli commentators are finding it hard to avoid the “fight of his life” cliches and “political battlefield” metaphors. But doomsday scenarios don’t only involve Barak: Either result in this week’s vote could have led to the destruction of Labor, as both camps refused to promise to accept the party’s Central Committee decision. Though Barak has promised to “stay in the Labor Party,” some believed that if he had lost the vote, he might have bolted from the party with some Labor allies and joined the Netanyahu coalition as an independent faction. But even with his victory, some Labor parliamentarians who oppose Barak may still refuse to vote for the government in the Knesset. They claim that joining Netanyahu will be the last straw on the way to Labor’s elimination, with Kadima’s Tzipi Livni becoming the only alternative for left-of-centre voters who do not want to vote for a fringe party.
Barak’s supporters – who claim that he is “consider[ing] what is best for the party, and far more important – what is best for the country,” as he himself recently argued – have become the subject of much ridicule by the country’s elite pundits. “All this talk about ‘country’,” wrote Ben Caspit of Maariv, “is hard to believe.” Yossi Verter of Haaretz wrote that Barak “waved the white flag” because he doesn’t believe that Labor has a real chance to overcome the verdict of voters.
As was demonstrated in the elections, neither the public nor the pundits have much love for Barak. He has earned a reputation as a lousy politician, instrumentalist in his dealings with others and dismissive of his party’s apparatus. He has few friends, and many enemies. Netanyahu, strangely, is one of few people who still has respect for Barak, valuing his strategic and military expertise and admiring his ability to remain cool-headed in times of crisis.
As happens in cases in which the villain can be easily recognised, the ability of people to separate their feelings from the broader picture is often limited. Those arguing that Barak’s behaviour is problematic, that he fails to separate Israel’s needs from his own personal political fate, have every right to be angry at his manipulative ways and egotistical calculations.
However, all this still doesn’t mean that a government in which Barak’s party is a member isn’t better for Israel than the government Netanyahu would have without Labor. Labor will add to this government’s political stability, will make Netanyahu less dependent on the more radical elements of this coalition, and will assist it by giving it more international legitimacy. New elections within a year – a narrow coalition cannot survive for much longer – would certainly not be in Israel’s interests.
By joining the coalition, Barak reinforces the negative view most Israelis have of his personal qualities, and might jeopardise Labor’s future. But as legitimate as it is to question Barak’s motives, a coalition with Labor as an active member is better for the country.
Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv-based writer and editor, blogs daily at Rosner’s Domain. © The New Republic, all rights reserved, reprinted by permission.