Nearly 10 years to the day since Ehud Barak was first elected chair of Israel’s Labor party, he emerged victorious again on June 12 – in a narrow primary win over his more dovish opponent, Ami Ayalon. In May 1999, Barak trounced the incumbent Likud prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, with 57 percent in a direct vote.
As prime minister for 20 months, Barak negotiated within a few meters of a peace agreement with Syria, withdrew Israeli forces unilaterally from Lebanon, attempted an agreement with the Palestinians at Camp David in the summer of 2000, presided over the beginnings of the intifada that followed, made one last-ditch negotiating attempt at Taba, and then succumbed in a nearly two to one electoral debacle to Ariel Sharon. Barak resigned from politics, loudly proclaiming that Yasir Arafat had proven himself incapable of making peace.
Barak had not made a successful transition from armed forces chief of staff, a general who commands, to being a political leader who negotiates policies. An example was his falling out with the Meretz party, his more left-wing but also closest ideological ally; by the summer of 2000, he required the mediation of a Meretz Member of Knesset (Avshalom Vilan), who had served under his direct command in the army, to even speak with Meretz leader Yossi Sarid.
The need for an Israeli prime minister to be skilled at coalition-building has only deepened with the degeneration of Israel’s system of proportional representation into a free-for-all of multiple parties. (The current Knesset has 12.) No Israeli ruling party has ever won a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset, but the major parties have declined to a historically low ebb. Labor and Meretz (Labor’s traditional partner) have fallen from 44 and 12 members, respectively, in 1992, to 19 and five seats today – the political price for the failure of the peace process in the ’90s. Likud, once again led by Netanyahu, has gone from around 40 under Ariel Sharon to its current 12 – due largely to Sharon’s creation of the centrist Kadima party, the current governing party under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which has 29 seats.
Kadima, however, is reeling from last year’s dismal war with Hezbollah; polls consistently show Olmert is leading the party toward oblivion – with a level of support ranging below 10 percent. But elections are not due until 2010 and sitting members of Knesset who know they are vulnerable have little incentive to vote for an early election.
A possible silver lining of Olmert’s weakness is that it might encourage him to seriously negotiate a two-state framework agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the upcoming international conference slated for November. Such a Hail-Mary pass – if it succeeds – could boost Olmert electorally.
Kadima has one additional option to remain in power and to simultaneously advance the prospects for peace: the ascendancy of Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni to replace Olmert as the party’s standard-bearer. Of the three leading contenders for prime minister, ex-Likudnik Livni seems the most inclined to work hard for a negotiated peace and she actually leads both Barak and Netanyahu in the polls.
Barak is apparently basing his comeback strategy on a hardline stance. The popular newspaper Yediot Achranot reported that he has discounted the possibility of any West Bank withdrawal in the near term. He has proclaimed the need for three to five years for Israel to develop a technological defense that would deter rocket and missile attacks from the West Bank like those Israel has experienced from the other territories it evacuated – Gaza and southern Lebanon. Having replaced his failed predecessor, Amir Peretz, as both head of the second largest party in Olmert’s coalition and as defense minister, Barak may undermine Olmert’s attempts to bolster Abbas by the dismantling of West Bank checkpoints or the further release of prisoners. This could rattle Labor’s base, causing defections to Meretz or Kadima.
Barak was a tragic figure in his first term, who could have delivered much yet failed miserably. The resurrected version has been hardened by that experience. If the choices in the next election are to be among Barak, Netanyahu, who is more right wing than he was a decade ago, and whoever Kadima ultimately runs, it is sobering to think that Israel’s best hope for a peaceful future may lie with the ex-rightists who have governed so disastrously during their first year in power.