Tel Aviv — He is known as Israel’s most decorated soldier and an undercover commando. And he has styled himself as a disciple of Yitzchak Rabin.
But his tenure as prime minister at the turn of this century was one of the shortest, and he managed to splinter the Labor Party after becoming defense minister under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2009. And political colleagues on the left blame him as partially responsible for the chaotic and rudderless state of Israel’s center-left opposition.
Now, after seven years on the sidelines, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak is mounting another political comeback, diving into the choppy waters of a muddled and stammering parliamentary opposition — just as the Iran nuclear issue escalates. Last week he announced the formation of a new party, and has recruited several interesting figures for his still-unnamed group.
“This isn’t the time for passivity, vague talk, or to sit on the fence,” Barak said, taking a dig at opposition leaders while announcing the reentry. “The Netanyahu regime must be brought down, not rescued.”
Barak retired from politics in 2012 after acknowledging that his short-lived splinter party — “Atzmaut” — had no prospects for election. But a poll by Israel’s Channel 13 news suggested that Barak’s new party could win as many as six seats — and shift the majority in the parliament to the center-right.
Even if temporary, it’s an impressive result for a politician who seemed like his time had passed. However, it’s also an indication of the political vacuum of the opposition. As the center-right Blue and White struggles to find its voice and footing, both Labor and Meretz have been embroiled in leadership primaries.
One thing that Barak has going for him is that he has experience as a former prime minister (even if he’s regarded as a failure). Another advantage he may enjoy is that he’s the one candidate to have beaten Netanyahu in an election, said Mitchell Barak, a public opinion expert.
“Barak has got fire in his belly,” Barak (no relation) said. “Benny Gantz has been a disappointment on so many levels. I don’t see people posting [online] about him. … Barak’s speech was great. He’s passionate and he wants to be prime minister. And he’s motivated. Those are three things I can’t say about Benny Gantz.”
Yossi Verter, a political columnist for Haaretz, wrote that Barak’s return could inject some intensity into the campaign and make him a political player again.
“The sluggish, anemic behavior of [Blue and White’s] leaders has succeeded in turning a vigorous, sharp-tongued old man who passed retirement age a decade ago into a hot political commodity,” he wrote. “Ehud Barak is bringing the additive — some would say the drug — that this miserable election campaign so desperately needs: a combination of energy, aggression and venom.”
Barak’s political return comes at a time when the shine from Gantz and Blue and White has faded somewhat. A comeback during the first round of Israeli elections would have been more complicated because of the excitement surrounding Gantz, but the party of three generals and Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid Party, is no longer the political flavor of the month.
Barak can say that they already had a shot and failed to win, said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.
Lapid immediately rejected the possibility of a joint run in the elections, saying, “Barak is left and there’s no reason to link up with him.”
Barak’s party includes Yair Golan, a former general who compared the Israeli government to Nazi Germany in the 1930s while still in uniform. It also includes Noa Rothman, the granddaughter of Yitzchak Rabin, as well as a former candidate on the Labor party list. (This week, Jewish Home activist Sagit Peretz Deri joined the new party, saying she opposed the linkage of the national religious community and the extreme right.)
“Those two people [Golan and Rothman] would look very good on a Meretz-Labor ticket,” said Rynhold, who expects Barak to look for political mergers on the center-left.
On Tuesday, Amir Peretz, the former Labor chairman and former defense minister, won the leadership of the Labor Party with 47 percent of the vote. He beat Itzik Shmueli and Stav Shaffir, two up-and-coming lawmakers who were the leaders of Israel’s cost-of-living street protests in 2011. Peretz will replace Avi Gabbay.
In addition to critics on the right, Barak has no shortage of rivals from his old days as Labor leader.
“This is the ‘leadership of Barak’: responsible for the destruction of the Oslo process and the outbreak of the second Intifada; beaten in a landslide by Sharon in 2001,” wrote Haim Ramon, a former rival from the Labor Party on Twitter. “How pathetic can the left be if this is the leadership it longs for.”
On Tuesday, Barak told a press conference that he wouldn’t agree to join a government headed by Netanyahu.
Barak’s political return came as Iran’s nuclear program — an issue on which he was considered a hawk — returned to the headlines as Tehran announced that it had surpassed the level of low-level uranium enrichment permissible under the 2015 agreement on its nuclear program.
The escalating tensions with Iran has spurred criticism among Israeli experts of President Trump’s approach to Tehran. Despite calls for Iran to respect the agreement, Ariel Leviteh, a former deputy general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, told the Herzliya Conference that the Obama administration-era deal had effectively collapsed. Leviteh said that the agreement had failed to create a positive dynamic, however, Trump’s current strategy isn’t well defined.
“What he wants to do isn’t clear to him neither in the North Korean case, the Middle East peace process, and in the Iranian case,” he said.
Speaking at the same conference, Sima Shine, a former Mossad analyst, said the gap between the U.S. and Iran is too large for talks, and Trump doesn’t understand Iran’s resistance to the West.
“I don’t think there is a Plan B” in case sanctions don’t work, she said. “If the regime starts to enrich to 20 percent, what do you do next? Do you enforce more sanctions? This is the main problem with the current situation. Is Trump going to bomb Iran? I doubt it.”
Ultimately, Israel will need to make sure it has the ability to launch an attack against Iran to prevent it from gaining a nuclear weapon, said Yaakov Amador, a former National Security Advisor, at the conference, echoing a position of Barak’s.
“Israel can’t be a situation in which the Iranians have military capability and Israel can’t stop it.”