Thoughts of premiership dashed, Barak clings to hopes of center-left bloc

Apologizing for the October 2000 riots, Israel Democratic Party leader hopes to prove he can head a merger with Meretz. He doesn’t have many other choices

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Ehud Barak, head of the Israel Democratic Party speaks during an election campaign event in Tel Aviv on July 17, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Ehud Barak, head of the Israel Democratic Party speaks during an election campaign event in Tel Aviv on July 17, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Ehud Barak apologized again on Tuesday. This time it was for the deaths of 13 Arab demonstrators in clashes with police at the start of the Second Intifada, when he served as prime minister.

In a previous public apology, 20 years ago, Barak asked for forgiveness from Israel’s Middle Eastern Jewish communities, in the name of all the generations of Mapai and Labor governments that preceded him, whose sins of discrimination he carried. In both cases the goal was transparent — to garner votes during an election campaign — and for that Barak makes no apology.

The former premier came back from his political retirement ahead of September’s election with a single goal — to form a united left-center force that could seriously take on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right. Barak has made a lot of noise in the two months since he launched his new Israel Democratic Party, but his machinations and bravado have left him with little to show for it.

With just a week left to finalize mergers and unions as party slates close, Barak remains alone. The centrist Blue and White party has given him the cold shoulder and newly elected Labor leader Amir Peretz declared last week that he would not unite with another party after his merger with Gesher chairwoman Orly Levy-Abekasis.

L-R: Labor chair Amir Peretz, Meretz chair Nitzan Horovitz, Israel Democratic Party chair Ehud Barak. (Flash90)

Not only does it now look impossible for him to win the premiership, but the former prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff, who until recently had been the left-wing camp’s great white hope, now finds his grand dreams of a left-wing mega-merger in the hands of the tiny Meretz, the only party left with which he can sign a merger agreement. And his chances of leading such a union seem to rest on being able to persuade Meretz voters that he can do better than their own recently elected chair Nitzan Horowitz.

Barak, therefore, responded yesterday to a call by MK Issawi Frej to apologize to Arab Israelis for his conduct during the deadly October 2000 riots.

“I really bear responsibility for everything that took place during my tenure as prime minister, including the events of October [2000],” Barak told the Kan public broadcaster. “There should be no situation in which demonstrators are killed by the fire of the security forces of their own country… It is forbidden for such things to happen — not then, and not today. I do not absolve myself of responsibility.”

In 2000, as the second Palestinian Second Intifada gained momentum in the West Bank, Arab Israelis took to the streets to protest the visit of then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount — a move that angered Palestinian and Israeli Muslims and sparked the violence.

A policeman sitting confronts an Israeli Arab crowd when they clash during the first days of the Second Intifada on October 20, 2000. (Flash90)

Thirteen protesters were killed in clashes with police officers, who used live fire and rubber bullets to scatter the demonstrators. An official government commission inquiry established a month later concluded that there had been no justification for the live fire, though no Israeli officer went on to be charged for the deaths.

Frej responded to Barak’s statement, telling Kan that the Israel Democratic Party leader’s apology was “the opening of a door.” Meretz will now examine if it’s worth letting Barak in.

Nearly 40,000 Arab Israelis voted for Meretz in the April elections and the question facing the party is whether those voters will cast the same ballot with Barak at the helm or prefer the Joint (Arab) List — the party uniting four Arab Israeli factions which ran in the 2015 elections, broke up for the April elections, but seems set to reunite for September’s vote.

Both the Israel Democratic Party and Meretz well know that the merger could save the two parties from failing to cross the 3.25 percent electoral threshold required to enter the Knesset. In addition, a slate headed by Barak could potentially absorb thousands of Labor Party voters who are disillusioned by Peretz’s merger with the former Yisrael Beytenu MK Levy-Abekasis.

As things stand today, Meretz’s situation is better than the Israel Democratic Party’s, at least in recent polls, which give the former around six of the 120 Knesset seats, compared to around four for Barak’s new faction.

The question is whether Barak will be willing to step aside and run in the September elections under the leadership of Horowitz.

Nitzan Horowitz, the newly voted head of left-wing Meretz party, reacts as he makes a victory speech, after winning the party leadership at a vote in Tel Aviv, June 27, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Last night, Meretz was already flexing its muscles against Barak.

“If he comes to us, it should be clear to him that Horowitz is leading, and that we are the dominant party and most of the Knesset members will be Meretz,” a senior party member told Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site.

For now, however, Barak is still cashing in on the buzz he generated, promising to remain in the race until the very end, even if no merger deal is reached.

He may yet be sorry for the decision, again.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report, which was adapted from a version published on Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.

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