Over the past several weeks, we’ve been following the developing story of the political comeback of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak. Barak, the most decorated officer and longest-serving IDF chief of staff in Israeli history, served as prime minister from 1999-2001 and defense minister (under Ehud Olmert and Benjamin Netanyahu) from 2007-2013. He has since stayed out of the political arena – until last month, when he announced that Netanyahu’s time is up and that he is forming a new political party (with the provocative name Yisrael Demokratit, Israel Democratic Party).
Why Does This Matter?
Who is Ehud Barak? Ehud Barak was born in pre-state Palestine in 1942. He had an illustrious military career, rising in the ranks until he became the IDF Chief of Staff. Subsequently, in 1995, he entered Israeli politics; he served as Minister of the Interior, Minister of Foreign Affairs, head of the Labor party, founder of the One Israel party, Prime Minister (defeating Netanyahu in 1999), and, later, Defense Minister.
As Prime Minister: Barak represented Israel at the 2000 Camp David Summit with U.S. President Bill Clinton and PA head Yassir Arafat. There they discussed three primary issues: Jerusalem, borders and refugees. Historian Anita Shapira explains, in her book Israel: A History, that Barak was in a tight spot in Israel when he went to Camp David, as his government was hanging by a thread. This left him more eager to make a deal than Arafat and gave Arafat the upper hand. Barak was ready to make big concessions, including 92% of the West Bank and Gaza, control of the Jordan valley and certain areas of Jerusalem. As opposed to the first Camp David summit, which had succeeded because of Begin and Sadat’s willingness to work together and find common ground, the second summit failed “because only one of the leaders intended to reach an agreement.”
Shapira writes: “Barak’s assumption that he could make his final proposal at the outset and expect the other side to accept it exposed both his lack of negotiating finesse and his impatience to reach an agreement.”
Barak was even willing to concede parts of Jerusalem, which is a place no previous Israeli leader went, but Arafat’s stubbornness and lack of willingness to compromise was clear. Shapira concludes, “One thing is certain: he (Arafat) did not prepare the Palestinians for the fact that the final agreement would involve compromises. The incitement in the Palestinian media and the PA’s education system had continued throughout the decade of peace negotiations.”
The whole episode left many Israelis unhappy with Barak. In 2001, Barak called for a special election for prime minister, assuming he would win, but the public voted instead for Ariel Sharon, leaving Barak as one of the shortest-serving prime ministers in Israel’s history.
The Wildest Moment in Barak’s Career?
Vying with the story of Operation Entebbe for the boldest IDF operation ever was Operation Fountain of Youth. During this operation, Ehud Barak disguised himself as a woman and entered Beirut with the Matkal special forces in order to assassinate key Palestinian terrorists, including one of Yasser Arafat’s key deputies, who were involved in the massacre of Israelis at the Munich Olympics in 1972. See our video on the Munich massacre which speaks about this.
Ronen Bregman quotes Barak in his fascinating Rise and Kill First, that, “In retrospect, it seems to me that we came back from Beirut that night and the country’s leaders drew the wrong conclusions. It created a self-confidence that lacked foundation. It is impossible to project from a surgical, pinpoint commando raid onto the abilities of the entire army, as if the IDF can do anything, that we are omnipotent.”
According to Barak, why is he coming back now? Barak stated at a press conference: “These are the darkest days we have known.” He further said: “This is not the time to remain sitting on the sidelines.” Barak intends to topple Netanyahu and “work to reform the country and society.” Barak accused Netanyahu of calling for the last election in order to grant himself immunity and avoid criminal charges. He released a video asking the Israeli public “Have we lost our minds?” and calling for a united opposition against Netanyahu.
Diversity of Perspectives
On the one hand: A Haaretz editorial called Barak’s re-entry into politics a “breath of fresh air” amidst the current election campaign, stating that Barak has “charged the center-left with new energy and created a new, surprising opening in the middle of a campaign that until now had seemed tired and sleepy.” The article contends that Barak will likely increase the amount of seats that the left-center bloc obtains, and that he will need to partner with Kahol Lavan to accomplish their shared goal of “getting rid of Benjamin Netanyahu’s corrupt, destructive government.” Read also Haaretz journalist Iris Leal’s take on the matter.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Yisrael Hayom opinions contributor Nadav Shragai seeks to remind the public of Barak’s tenure as prime minister. He writes that just weeks after a Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) ceremony in Israel, in which he stated that “only someone completely disconnected from the historical heritage, who is alienated from the vision of the people… could even conceive of a concession … of a part of Jerusalem,” Barak offered to divide Jerusalem and concede large parts of it to the Palestinians during the Camp David Summit of 2000. Shragai writes, “Now, more than ever, is the time to remind people of Barak’s betrayal of the trust of his constituents and Jerusalem.”
Michael Koplow, in the Israel Policy Forum podcast, perhaps describes the polarity of Barak the best, saying “ the case can be made that he (Barak) is the most impressive Israeli in history” considering his accomplishments in the military, politics and his background as a world-class pianist, “and he is also “one of the least trusted public figures in Israel.” Koplow notes that there is a distinct possibility that he will “turn more people off than he motivates.”
- Barak has named his new party Yisrael Demokratit, or Democratic Israel or Israel Democracy party. This has sparked controversy, as it seemingly implies that Israel, or other current parties, are not democratic. Do you think the name is offensive?
- Barak’s primary motive in entering these elections is to unseat Netanyahu. In your opinion, is such a motive less noble than running to achieve a certain vision or ideal? Does it matter?
- In the New York Times, Thomas Friedman analyzes what Barak’s return could mean for Netanyahu as well as Trump’s peace plan. He claims that in Israel’s last election, neither the right nor center-left bloc addressed the Palestinians in their campaigns, and now Barak is bringing that discussion to the table. Friedman goes so far as to say: “Both Trump and Jews all over the world should pray that Bibi loses. If he wins the election — and undermines the rule of law to protect his rule and to perpetuate Israel’s control of the West Bank — every Jew who cares about the Jewish state will eventually have to make an ethical choice about whether or not they can continue to support Israel. This, as I said, could tear apart every synagogue and Jewish institution on college campuses, in America and across the diaspora.” Do you think Friedman’s analysis is fair or do you think his bias against Netanyahu is guiding his analysis? Is the gap between Israeli and diaspora Jews reaching a breaking point?
- Former MK Rabbi Dov Lipman in JNS quotes former Labor Minister Eitan Cabelwho said about Barak’s return: “I would never go to a doctor a third time after he almost killed me twice. Barak has been given two opportunities to lead the Israeli left, and he failed. His return will only hurt the center-left bloc.” Do you agree with Cabel’s indictment of Barak? Would you apply the same logic to Prime Minister Netanyahu with regard to the right?
Practical Classroom Tips
- Show this cartoon to your students. Discuss who is depicted, what the cartoon is saying, and their opinions about it.
- For a Hebrew-language challenge, play this video in which Barak slams Netanyahu and calls Israelis to action in order to unseat him. What are his main points? Does he make a good case? Would you want to vote for him?
- Divide students into pairs and ask them to listen to this episode of Israel Policy Forum’s podcast (starting from minute 24) featuring its Policy Director Michael Koplow. Ask them to fill out a 3-2-1 card, listing 3 things they learned, 2 questions they have, and 1 topic they’d be interested in learning more about.
In Other News…
- Popular Israeli actress Gal Gadot is slated to star in Netflix’s biggest film yet, an action thriller called Red Notice.
- For the first time ever, Israel’s synchronized swimming team qualified for the finals of the World Championship after a stellar performance in South Korea on Sunday.
- Jerusalem is expecting at least three years of increased traffic jams as the city does massive construction at its entrance to build a new tunnel and the Jerusalem Gateway commercial quarter.