When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government back in April, it was a certainty that the country’s political system would enter into a frenzy in preparation for the next opportunity to receive a mandate in the forthcoming September elections.
It is impossible to penetrate Israel’s complex political DNA without realizing that, beyond legitimate differences of opinion and some less legitimate ones, there are many personal animosities often derived from decades of existing in very close political and social proximity. Moreover, Israeli politicians hardly ever retire — at best, they take a break and then make a comeback — and their fluidity in moving between parties, together with the intolerable ease with which they form new ones, makes the system almost entirely incomprehensible and illogical.
One of the most bitter rivalries on show is that between former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the current PM, even though not so long ago Barak served as defense minister in Netanyahu’s government. But then, as happens in Israeli politics, and especially in any relations with Netanyahu, they fell out and there was no way back.
It has been anticipated for several years now that Barak, a former military chief of staff and the most decorated soldier in the country’s history, will return to frontline politics. His premiership was short, less than two years between 1999 and 2001, but nevertheless eventful. Most notably, he led the Israeli peace negotiators at Camp David in the summer of 2000, in efforts that failed spectacularly. The collapse of those negotiations with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, mediated by then-US President Bill Clinton, was not only followed by an extremely violent Second Intifada, but also saw the immediate end of Barak’s premiership, and since then he has never managed to fully resurrect his political career. Instead he settled for serving in other prime ministers’ governments, playing second fiddle.
There is no questioning Barak’s intelligence, intellect and incisive mind. He has not only been a military man and a strategist for most of his adult life, but is also a mathematician and a first-class pianist — all evidence of rare analytical abilities. However, his emotional intelligence has always been questionable and has led to difficult working relations with those who air dissenting voices. Barak is a maverick who has never been a team player and, at the age of 77, he can hardly represent the future of the left in Israel. Moreover, it is a rather curious question as to what motivates him, at this stage of his life, to take part in what promises to be an extremely toxic election campaign, particularly since the odds are stacked against him becoming prime minister, let alone doing well at the ballot box.
One of his reasons for taking part is his extreme contempt for Netanyahu and a sense of responsibility to stop the latter from further damaging Israel’s democracy, corrupting it and destroying the rule of law, while caving in to the most extreme version of national-religious messianism and ultra-Orthodox Judaism. There is also the fear that Barak shares with many of his former and current senior colleagues in the security forces that an ultra-right-wing coalition will jeopardize the long-term security, democratic nature and Jewish nature of Israel, leading to an apartheid state living forever by the sword.
It is not only Barak who is terrified that another term of Netanyahu at the helm might change the country beyond recognition — this fear is felt by many former senior security people. One of the new recruits to Barak’s party is former Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, who was courageous enough to draw parallels, while still serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), between the “nauseating trends that took place in Europe in general, and in Germany specifically,” back in the 1930s and similar trends in Israel today. In fact, there is a higher concentration of generals positioned at the center of the Israeli political spectrum than on the right, including four former IDF chiefs of staff.
Polls taken in the immediate aftermath of Barak joining the political race are not very flattering, suggesting he will win no more than a handful of seats in the next Knesset. This is a sad reflection of the left and center-left in Israel: That it can’t produce fresh faces and must rely on former security chiefs to take the reins rather than a new generation who are a better representation of civil society. Moreover, Barak presided over one of the worst periods in the constant decline of the Labor Party and, by spreading the myth of Camp David — that Israel offered the Palestinians everything they could have dreamed of but they declined and replied with violence — he caused irreparable damage to any future peace efforts.
Barak never retracted that claim, nor reflected on his own contribution to the collapse of the peace talks all those years ago, and this puts a big question mark against him becoming the champion of Israel’s dwindling peace camp. What he most probably will do is further divide the left vote and push the Blue and White alliance to the right in an attempt distinguish itself from him and attract more votes from former Likud supporters. With the new old kid on the block back in town, along with some of the quality people who have joined him, including the granddaughter of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, the three leftist parties — Labor, Meretz and Barak’s newly formed Israel Democratic Party — should seriously consider joining forces to give themselves a chance of becoming a meaningful social-democratic political force, if not in the immediate future, then certainly in the longer term.
The writer Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House.
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