Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak jumped into the lead for Labor Party leader after announcing his candidacy this week, but political observers said it was still a wide open race and that incumbent Amir Peretz should not be counted out.
“Polls are one indication, but in the end it depends on the organizational ability of each of the camps and it depends on networks and money,” observed Asher Arian, a political science professor at the University of Haifa. “The whole thing depends on who is successful in gathering members to join and participate in the [May 28] primary,” he added. “Popularity is one issue, but organization [is the key]. In the last primary, only 50 percent of the party members actually voted.”
A survey published Wednesday by the Israeli newspaper Maariv found that Barak had the support of 30 percent of voters. His nearest opponent, Ami Ayalon, had 23 percent of the vote, Ophir Paz-Pines had 18 percent and Peretz just 12 percent. David Kimche, president of the Israel Council of Foreign Relations, said that although Peretz cannot be counted out because he “pulled off a miracle in the past” when he won the party leadership post, “this time it would be much more difficult for him. I can’t see him winning.”
Peretz is blamed by many Israelis for the country’s failure to defeat Hezbollah in last summer’s war in Lebanon, and for the military’s inability to curb the firing of Kassam rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip. A member of the advisory council of the Israel Policy Forum, Kimche recalled that just “a year ago nobody would hear anything” about Barak, who was trounced at the polls by Ariel Sharon when he sought re-election in 2001. Many Israelis believed Barak offered too many concessions to Palestinian President Yasir Arafat during Camp David talks in the summer of 2000. “People have short memories,” he said, adding that Barak, a former army general, is now seen by some as “a savior” because of his security expertise.
“He was a war hero and many people feel there is another war coming and that we need another general” as prime minister, Kimche said.
But Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, pointed out that “generals carry significant negatives.”
He said there is “not much difference” between Barak and Ayalon in terms of their impeccable personal integrity. Ayalon, a former Navy admiral, once headed the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. Integrity is something many Israelis long for now in light of continuing scandal allegations involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, his bureau chief and Tax Authority officials. Steinberg said that although Olmert is reportedly the subject of as many as three criminal investigations, they don’t pose as much of a threat as the tax scandal involving allegations of bribery and fraud even though he is not a suspect in that case.
“Everybody in Israel pays income taxes, and if Olmert presided over a corrupt system, it is going to cost him,” he said.Steinberg said also that the plans each candidate has put forth regarding a resolution of Palestinian conflict are largely irrelevant because “Israelis understand they are mostly theory.”
“Everyone has to have a plan, but there is no indication the Palestinians are interested in them,” he said.
Instead, voters are focused on leadership qualities and personality. Ayalon, said Steinberg, “does not have good people skills. That is a general problem for generals and as Ayalon undergoes more scrutiny, that will become a problem for him. … When pressed, he has difficulty making connections.”
Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said Barak is not much better at interpersonal skills and that should Barak end up one day challenging Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for prime minister, Livni would beat him in the personality test.
“She knows how to talk to people without alienating them,” he said. “She acts more as a human being than Barak. You can’t be his friend. He is arrogant. He is a genius and he lets you know it. He really is a genius and he makes you feel it. At the beginning, you admire it, but in the long run people don’t get along well with him and a politician has to build coalitions and sustain them. She can do that. But Barak has a military record and he is a name and some people might find it more difficult to vote for a woman, especially when the main issue is security.”
But right now, Barak “sees his window of opportunity because the political situation is in such bad shape and he can paint himself as someone who can save the day for the Labor Party and the moderate forces in politics,” Rahat said. “He can claim he has some experience, while Ayalon, his main competitor, cannot claim to have much experience beyond the security forces and the Navy. … Among the competitors, if Barak or Peretz loses, it would be a real loss. Ayalon can lose and try again.”
In an attempt to overcome his history, Barak is portraying himself as a new man. In his letter to Labor Party secretary general Eitan Cabel announcing his candidacy, he referred to his lack of maturity during his tenure as prime minister in the late 1990s. “It’s possible that I became prime minister too soon,” he wrote. “I made many mistakes, and my lack of experience was to my detriment. Today I know that there are no shortcuts, certainly not in public and political life, and that leadership is a shared burden, not a solo mission. It is impossible to succeed alone and coherent thinking, will and talent on their own are insufficient to run a state.”
Arian, the University of Haifa professor, said he read the letter with fascination.
“It had to be written by a committee of psychologists and spin doctors,” he said. “You can’t believe it is an authentic letter.”
Reflecting on Barak’s return to party politics after years of self-imposed exile, Arian said that despite his lead in the polls “Barak has an enormous mountain to climb up. … I think he thought he would be brought back to power on a wave of the masses calling for his return. That has still not happened.”
“In this constellation, Barak looks attractive to a number of party people who are even willing to forget the past, but his strongest support is not from middle age party leaders but older ones, those who are no longer in power. Those who see themselves as actually working with him seem to be less enthused.”