Former prime minister Ehud Barak warned Thursday that the government’s agenda was endangering the future of the country, at the same time charging that opposition MK Yair Lapid lacked the strength of personality to lead an effective alternative cabinet in a better direction.
“This right-wing Israeli government… threatens Zionism and threatens the future of Israel,” he said. It is acting “for unity of the land [including the West Bank] at the expense of unity among the people and at the expense of Israel’s security, and that needs to be corrected.”
Lapid would represent more of the same, he cautioned, taking votes from the center-left but allying himself with the right.
Barak, who was the IDF’s longest-serving chief of staff and went on to be a Labor prime minister in 1999-2001 and defense minister in 2007-13, told Israel Radio in an interview that the absence of any real opposition force in the political arena had created a dangerous vacuum.
Stressing that he speaks out as a “very concerned citizen” but has no intention of returning to politics himself, Barak said that over the past two years a “right-wing government” has revealed an “agenda that is dangerous to Israel, the Zionist enterprise and its future.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition includes the Yisrael Beytenu party, led by hard-line Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, and the national religious Jewish Home party, led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The coalition is considered the most right-wing in Israel’s history.
Barak declared that this government’s policies, rather than achieving a two-state solution with the Palestinians, will lead to “one state in which there is an Arab majority, and almost certainly a constant civil war, or alternatively, an apartheid state.”
“The very future of the Zionist project” is under threat, he said, and “the government that we chose two years ago is implementing its agenda, to tear down the four pillars of democracy: the Supreme Court, free press, civilian society, and the IDF.”
Netanyahu’s approach is, he said, divisive. It asks, essentially: “What are you first of all, Jewish or Israel? If you are Israeli you are left, if you are Jewish you are right. Do you like Arabs or hate Arabs? If you like Arabs you are left, if you hate Arabs you are right.” This “divisive, inciting approach” has to be replaced. What is needed is to place “security above all — in deed, not in word.” Israel needs “the unifying of its people more than it needs Greater Israel,” he added.
A key problem is that “Israel has no opposition today, it doesn’t exist,” said Barak, who retired from political life in 2013 but continues to publicly comment on government, security, and social issues.
Barak was not directly critical of opposition and Labor party leader MK Isaac Herzog, and said he was a serious politician. He said Herzog had tried to advance peace efforts by negotiating on joining the Netanyahu coalition but that it was Netanyahu who had doomed opportunities such as last year’s Jordan summit. But he indicated that he did not believe Herzog had the necessary appeal to become prime minister.
By contrast, Barak directly scorned Lapid, who is touted by political pundits as having a realistic chance of displacing Netanyahu. He said Lapid has called himself a man of the right and has made clear that his coalition, if he were charged with forming one, would comprise Likud, Kulanu and maybe Jewish Home — another rightist government.
Barak dismissed assessments that Yesh Atid can poach right-wing voters in the next elections. Far from winning over five seats from the right, he said, Yesh Atid will win over 15 seats from the center-left. “And the policies” under Lapid “would be those of the right” because Lapid won’t have the fortitude and courage to advance the correct approach.
Yesh Atid has made steady gains in the polls over the past several months. A recent survey, published in March by Channel 10, found it was poised to receive 25 seats (up from its current 11), only one fewer than Likud would in an election.
“He won’t have the willpower or the character to take the necessary decisions and carry them out,” Barak said of Lapid. “I am very worried about the possibility that Yesh Atid is [perceived on the center-left as] the alternative. Yesh Atid doesn’t present a way [forward].”
In the vacuum created by an absence of an opposition, there needs to be “a self-confident group that says ‘we have a different way.'”
“We must know what we want. It is not enough to just replace Netanyahu. All those who are saying ‘anyone except Netanyahu,'” he said, are making a mistake. “A government with a similar agenda, led by Lapid but with coalition partners of Liberman, Kahlon and Likud, will not change us from a course that is endangering the future of Israel.” (Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud member, heads his own Kulanu party.)
Barak rejected a suggestion that he is planning to return to politics although he conceded that should future circumstances demand it, he may reconsider his position.
“At the moment I have no intention to return to the political system,” he said, but noted he still intends to raise his concerns when he feels they are valid.
The former prime minister also chastised Netanyahu for not exerting his authority to break up an emotional and sharp confrontation between bereaved parents of killed IDF soldiers and two Likud MKs during a Knesset debate to review a state comptroller report that faulted the government for its handling of the summer 2014 war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
During the Wednesday hearing, attended by Netanyau, bereaved parents of soldiers who died during the operation emotionally criticized the government and its leader. The two Likud Knesset members shouted back at them, with MK David Bitan branding one parent “a liar.”
Barak said that Netanyahu could have stopped the exchange and should have arranged to meet with the bereaved parents beforehand “to speak with them, and make sure that such a thing doesn’t happen.”
There should, he suggested, have been two debates at the Knesset, one to review the comptroller report and the other to meet with the bereaved parents, giving them an opportunity to ask the questions they have on what changes have been made.
Barak urged that a proper debate about the comptroller report be held by the Knesset in the future.
As regards the conduct of the 2014 war, Barak said Netanyahu, and his then defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, reined in the would-be “adventurism” of others in the coalition. However, he said, the firing of Ya’alon by Netanyahu last year constituted “one of the many low points” of Netanyahu’s governance.