As a military man, Ehud Barak’s secretive and maverick maneuvers, and his capacity to organize an effective and loyal hierarchy, brought him much success, honor and fame. He was sometimes able to muster the same skills to good effect in his position as defense minister. But in the undisciplined, constantly shifting realm of Israeli politics, where personal flaws are mercilessly exploited by rivals, and loyalties and leverage can shift overnight, Barak was not quite so effective.
Ultimately, his readiness to break alliances and shift his political agenda in order to try to retain power and influence, for what he would insist is the wider interest of all Israelis if only they knew it, left him staring at political oblivion as Israel moves into the January 22 election campaign. So on Monday, his tiny Independence party isolated, short on voters and bereft of political allies, he announced his retirement. He may even have meant it.
Given his predilection for the unexpected, it is not surprising that some pundits see the 70-year-old’s announcement that he would not be running in the upcoming elections — that he plans instead to devote himself to “learning, writing, living, and also enjoying life, if I may” — as another political ploy. This is the man who less than two weeks ago fatally duped Hamas’s Ahmed Jabari into thinking a minor flare-up of Gaza-Israel hostilities was over. But whatever Barak has in mind, it is almost impossible to discern how he might wind up again in his beloved defense minister’s post after election day.
Born on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon, Barak entered the IDF when he was 17 and quickly made an impact. During the Yom Kippur War, he commandeered a tank regiment. But his claim to military fame stemmed from his time as a formative force in the then-nascent, elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, where he led a succession of audacious, successful missions (some of them still classified), including the 1972 operation when he and his fellow commandos, disguised as technicians, overpowered the hijackers of a Sabena airliner.
Mythically remembered too is Operation Spring of Youth in 1973, for which Barak dressed up as a woman to target PLO terrorists in Lebanon. He is further credited as one of the key architects of the 1976 Operation Entebbe, during which more than 100 hostages were rescued from the hands of Uganda’s Idi Amin.
Barak — the country’s most decorated soldier — rose all the way through the ranks to become the IDF’s chief of staff in 1991. About half a year after Barak left that position, in July 1995, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed him interior minister. After Rabin’s assassination, Barak became foreign minister under Shimon Peres. It was at that time that he coined the description of Israel as a “villa in the jungle.”
Barak came from nowhere to take over the Labor Party and was elected prime minister in 1999, beating Benjamin Netanyahu by a wide margin on a promise to accelerate peace efforts with the Palestinians. But after 610 days in office, in which he struck a coalition deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and made a far-reaching offer under Bill Clinton’s auspices at Camp David to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the creation of an independent state — and was rebuffed — the outbreak of the second intifada meant he lost the 2001 elections to Ariel Sharon.
At which point he resigned as Labor chairman and quit politics. Twice.
“After he lost the election for prime minister on Feb. 6, Mr. Barak unexpectedly announced on election night that he was going to take a timeout from politics. But in a week, he was taking charge of the coalition negotiations with Mr. Sharon and forging an agreement on behalf of his party,” The New York Times wrote on February 21, 2001, after Barak had again resigned as party leader and quit his Knesset seat, for the second time in a month.
In 2005, Barak attempted a comeback but failed to gain enough support to win the Labor chairmanship. He was more successful two years later, and was later sworn in as defense minister (to prime minister Ehud Olmert), a position he has clung to ever since.
It wasn’t easy holding onto the coveted portfolio for five years, as governments and ministers changed all around him. In 2009, Netanyahu’s Likud won the elections and formed a right-wing coalition. Labor, which under Barak had ended up with a record-low 13 Knesset seats, joined the coalition so Barak could continue serving in the job he so loved, and in which he believed he was so crucial to Israel’s well-being. But as it became clear to many of his party’s MKs that Netanyahu’s policies on the Palestinians were not in tune with Labor ideology, pressure grew on Barak to leave.
Instead, he split Labor in two, taking four loyal MKs with him to the newly created Independence party, while the remaining eight went into the opposition.
“We are leaving a party and a home that we love, and respect its members,” Barak said at the press conference announcing the breakaway. “Many of those members experienced with us the daily travails of the party, and they fell victim to the endless fighting within it… We have reached the decision that this anomaly in political life, where they were in essence two Labor factions, had to stop.”
For Israel’s sake, Barak plainly believed, he simply had to be defense minister. After all, look what a mess his predecessor Amir Peretz had made of the 2006 Lebanon War. And thank goodness he was around to steward what foreign reports said was the 2007 Israeli strike on a Syrian nuclear reactor.
Naturally, his former Labor colleagues were furious at the political betrayal: MK Shelly Yachimovich, who now heads the party, slammed the “corrupt and opportunist” way in which Barak divided the party that had ruled Israel in the first decades of its existence. “Barak brought tragedy to the Labor Party, sullied it and broke it apart. The name ‘Independence’ is no less cynical: independent of a platform, of values and obligations to the public, loyal to a [coalition] seat,” she said.
As a dove on political matters, he was now the odd man out in a coalition built around right-wing, ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist parties. Already unloved by Labor, his opposition to unfettered settlement growth and his support of a Palestinian state (he even suggested a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank) drew the ire of many in the coalition.
“Barak’s pro-Palestinian agenda shows how little he understands of his Jewish heritage. His actions are extremely dangerous and if not curtailed may lead us on the path of a civil war that no Israeli wants,” Likud MK Danny Danon sniped back in April, after Barak had ordered the surprise evacuation of settlers from a contested property in Hebron.
And his Independence party was plainly a less than spectacular success with the public. Most polls predicted that, at best, it would barely pass the 2% electoral threshold to make it into the 19th Knesset, with only a few recent polls — notably after Operation Pillar of Defense — offering the prospect of four or five mandates.
Without Barak, his abandoned Independence colleagues — Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Shalom Simhon, Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Orit Noked, MKs Einat Wilf and Shachiv Shnaan — now have no hope of getting back into parliament unless they can find themselves new political homes.
Will Barak really retire from public life? He did leave a certain loophole Monday, in opting not to rule out a professional appointment as a non-MK defense minister, if the job were to be offered to him again after the elections. But given the fact that the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu parties, which are running on a united ticket and are expected to form the basis of the next coalition, have more than enough candidates for the job, Barak’s generous willingness to be considered would seem unnecessary. Another former IDF chief of staff, current Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, is the frontrunner. But according to the agreement between Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman could demand the position.
Netanyahu has relied heavily on Barak’s defense expertise — in dealing with the Palestinians, and in strategizing on Iran. And Barak was a convenient deflection when hawkish critics slammed the government for ostensible neglect of the settlements. But he brings no political clout anymore. When Netanyahu appointed Barak in 2009, he had 12 Labor loyalists with him.
Perhaps Barak will yet seek to enter the Knesset with a different party, one that is closer to home ideologically. A few hours before his press conference on Monday, some smart money was on Barak announcing that he would be running on a new centrist party ticket to be created by former Kadima chair and ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
Maybe by announcing his retirement, he could now give the appearance of being reluctantly wooed back by Livni — for the good of the country, of course.
With Barak, anything is possible. The deadline for all parties to submit their final lists for the January 22 elections is in 10 days. Then we might know for sure.