January 22, 2019

Labor’s Move Toward Center

After a year of licking the wounds of electoral defeat, the Israeli left has crowned a new leader who radiates an aura of victory and an appetite for power. The campaign of the year 2000 has begun.

Ehud Barak, a former armed forces chief who entered politics only 2 1/2 years ago, was elected leader of the Labor Party last week by a resounding majority. The party rank and file gave him 50 percent of their votes.

His nearest rival, Yossi Beilin, an architect of the Oslo breakthrough to peace with the Palestinians, won 28.5 percent. The third and fourth candidates, Shlomo Ben-Ami and Ephraim Sneh, polled 14.2 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively.

Like the Democrats in the United States and Labor in Britain, not to mention the Likud in Israel, the party has leapfrogged a generation in search of a new style and a new appeal.

He projected himself as a man of
the center. He didn’t want to rule
another (Palestinian) people, but
Israel had to calculate its own
security risks. Jerusalem had to
remain under Israeli sovereignty. It
was the pragmatism of Rabin rather
than the vision of Peres.

But, in his victory speech, Barak pledged to continue the peace policies of his mentors and predecessors, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. To reinforce the point, he made a pilgrimage the next morning to Rabin’s grave, on Mount Herzl. In subsequent interviews, Barak seemed more intent on evading commitments that might be exploited by the Likud propaganda machine than on setting out a detailed, or inspirational, platform.

He projected himself as a man of the center. He didn’t want to rule another (Palestinian) people, but Israel had to calculate its own security risks. Jerusalem had to remain under Israeli sovereignty. It was the pragmatism of Rabin rather than the vision of Peres. Predictably, he appealed for unity in a Labor Party that has been riven by camps and dissension.

In the best “after me” tradition of the Israeli officer corps, Barak, who is 55, will lead from the front. The new system of directly elected prime ministers demands it in any case. But if he wants to govern as well as to win, he will have to demonstrate that he can work with partners, not just followers.

It will go against the grain. He has always been a better talker than a listener. But the lesson of Binyamin Netanyahu’s troubled first year in office is that Israel elects a chief executive; it does not elect an emperor. He still needs a party, and his party still needs coalition allies.

Barak, Israel’s most decorated war hero, has a reputation for making his own decisions and trusting no one but himself. Literally and figuratively, he has a killer instinct. Among his legendary operations in the early 1970s were a pinpoint raid on Beirut, which eliminated three Palestinian leaders, and the rescue of a planeload of Sabena passengers held hostage at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. He entered politics to conquer, not just to serve.

Netanyahu must know that he has a fight on his hands. A Gallup poll, published in Ma’ariv three days after the Labor primary, gave Barak an eight-point lead (43 percent to Netanyahu’s 35 percent). The margin widened when Israelis were asked who would handle security better (49 percent for Barak to 29 percent for Netanyahu) and who would handle the peace negotiations better (46 percent to 31 percent).

In a country where, as Rabin showed in 1992, military rank counts, Barak was a lieutenant general, Netanyahu a captain. Barak was Netanyahu’s commander in the elite “Sayeret Matkal” commando unit. The telegenic Likud leader is the man in possession, with all the advantages of tactical initiative and media exposure that his position entails, but his new Labor challenger brings impressive credentials into the ring.

While Netanyahu was marketing director in a furniture company, Barak managed a complex force of 600,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen with an annual budget of $8 billion, though his term as chief of staff was not without its share of disasters.

In politics, where both are outsiders, Netanyahu served as ambassador to the United Nations and deputy foreign minister. Barak, however briefly in the waning days of the Rabin-Peres administration, had spells as interior minister and foreign minister. Before that, as chief of staff, he took part in fateful cabinet meetings for four years.

Barak will have to cut into Netanyahu’s mass support among religious Jews and Israelis of Middle Eastern and North African origin, as well as among the Russian immigrants, who swung left in 1992 and right in 1996, decisively in each case. At the same time, he has to convince the traditional left (and Israel’s Arab citizens, many of whom abstained last time rather than vote for a “Zionist” prime minister) that he means to deliver on peace.

Although Barak has been careful not to spell out an ideological stance, he will have to persuade Israel’s fragmented, argumentative, highly politicized voters that he is different and better than the Likud incumbent, that he is not just a “Bibi clone.” Charisma and a commitment to Israel’s security, which both men share, will not, alone, turn the trick. Labor chose him as the man who could bring them back to power. Now he has to prove it.

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