Flirting with comeback, former PM Barak concedes he can’t unseat Netanyahu alone
Speculation also swirls around center-left wildcard Gantz

Flirting with comeback, former PM Barak concedes he can’t unseat Netanyahu alone

76-year-old former Labor leader says he could join or lead a center-left bloc, should it coalesce; Likud says ‘failed’ ex-premier will watch election from sidelines

Former defense minister Ehud Barak attends a launching event of the 'Mehazkim' movement in Tel Aviv on August 24, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Former defense minister Ehud Barak attends a launching event of the 'Mehazkim' movement in Tel Aviv on August 24, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Former prime minister Ehud Barak on Monday said he may return to political life if a center-left political bloc were formed to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party in the April elections.

“If a center-left bloc coalesces that is led by a man who can both win elections and govern the country, he will win the election,” Barak told Hadashot television, hours after the national vote was moved up seven months by coalition leaders.

“It’s important to me that this bloc be formed — certainly I could lead it, I’ve led [a party] to victory in elections over Netanyahu — but I cannot make myself a condition to the formation of the bloc,” continued Barak.

“There is certainly a chance I will join — but I alone am not enough,” added the 76-year-old former Israeli leader.

Barak, a former Labor party leader who served as Netanyahu’s defense minister between 2009-2013, has over the past several years become an outspoken critic of Netanyahu, with many believing he may be setting the stage for a return to politics.

In the television interview on Monday, he urged politicians from the center-left to “put their egos aside” and form such a union to unseat the long-time prime minister.

The April polls “are the most fateful since the Rabin assassination,” said Barak, referring to the 1995 murder of the former prime minister by a Jewish extremist — Netanyahu won an election the next year, beating out Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres. “If we choose correctly, on April 9, we will part ways with Netanyahu and the State of Israel will set a new course, replacing this nationalist, racist, and dark one, which forsakes its residents and with a government that is steeping Israel in corruption.”

The Likud party said in response that Barak would remain politically irrelevant.

“The Israeli public rightly kicked out Ehud Barak [from politics], with a one-way ticket,” the ruling party said. “The most failed prime minister in Israel’s history will watch the upcoming elections on television.”

Composite photo (from left): Ehud Barak, Avi Gabbay, Benjamin Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon (All pictures: Flash90)

In recent months, Barak has reportedly met with Zionist Union’s Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, furthering speculation over the possibility of a political unification move for the country’s center-left camp.

In July, in cryptic comments possibly signaling plans for a political comeback, Barak said there was a “real, historic possibility” to replace the “dark, nationalist government” of Netanyahu with one that promises hope and vision.

In December, Barak in a New York Times op-ed said the current government was endangering the entire Zionist project, as it inches closer to an annexation of the West Bank, “precluding any permanent separation from the Palestinians.” He accused the Netanyahu-led government of showing a general disrespect for the rule of law, and claimed that it had “declared war” on the courts, the media, civil society, and the ethical code of the IDF.

Barak was the IDF’s longest-serving chief of staff and the country’s most decorated soldier before becoming prime minister in 1999, after defeating Netanyahu in elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak attend a press conference at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, November 21, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Following his defeat in 2001 to the late Ariel Sharon, Barak temporarily retired from politics, but returned to the Labor Party in 2005. From 2007 to 2013 he served as defense minister, the last four years under Netanyahu.

In 2011, he split from Labor, along with four other MKs, forming the short-lived Independence Party, in order to remain in Netanyahu’s coalition, despite the objection of most of Labor. The party was effectively disbanded upon Barak’s second retirement from politics in 2013.

Barak is not the only center-left wildcard with the ability to play juggernaut in the upcoming election.

According to a poll published last week, a political union between former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid could emerge as a serious challenger to the ruling Likud party. If Gantz were to run in elections together with Yair Lapid, the poll showed, they would win a collective 26 seats, nipping at the heels of Likud’s 29.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz speaks at the annual World Zionist Conference in Jerusalem, on November 2, 2017 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Speculation over Gantz’s political future has swirled this year, with the expiration of his legally required “cooling off” period, under which former top security officials must wait three years after retiring before entering politics. Gantz, 59, left the military in 2015, after a four-year stint as head of the Israel Defense Forces that saw him command the 2014 Gaza war under Netanyahu.

Though Gantz has yet to formally announce his entry to politics, he has reportedly gathered enough signatures to set up his own party and is said to prefer to run alone rather than join an existing center-left or centrist faction.

According to the Kan state broadcaster, Gantz has been in talks with Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of Shas founder Ovadiah Yosef, who is planning to mount a bid for the Knesset.

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