Nearly 10 years to the day since Ehud Barak was first elected chair of Israel’s Labor party (June 3, 1997, defeating Yossi Beilin), he emerged victorious again this past June 12 — in a narrow primary win over his more dovish opponent, Ami Ayalon. On June 17, he replaced the hapless Amir Peretz as minister of defense.
In 1999, Barak had trounced the incumbent Likud prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, with 57 percent in a direct vote. This was under the short-lived experiment that mandated a separate ballot for prime minister — a reform ended after the 2001 election with a return to Israel’s traditional means of electing prime ministers, via competing parliamentary lists.
Although prime minister for a mere 20 months, Barak was energetic:
negotiating within a few meters of a peace agreement with Syria, withdrawing Israeli forces unilaterally from Lebanon, attempting an agreement with the Palestinians at Camp David in the summer of 2000, presiding over the beginnings of the intifada that followed, making one last-ditch negotiating attempt at Taba and then succumbing in a nearly two-to-one electoral debacle to Ariel Sharon. Barak resigned from politics, loudly proclaiming that Yasir Arafat had proven himself incapable of making peace.
The reality is that both leaders can legitimately share blame: Barak for delaying and in other ways mishandling negotiations with the Palestinians and Arafat for disastrously attempting to use the violent uprising known as the Al-Aksa Intifada as leverage on the Israelis, rather than doing all he could to quickly end it.
Even so, Barak came close to concluding agreements with both Syria and the Palestinians. But he also fatally tried the patience of Palestinians by heading a coalition that included the pro-settler National Religious Party (allowing them to expand settlements) and rejecting the option of including supportive Arab parties in his coalition. He refused the further interim withdrawal agreement called for under Oslo and negotiated with Syria first – coming to a blind alley because he insisted on those extra few meters (as, of course, did the Syrians).
Barak had not made a successful transition from armed forces chief of staff, a general who leads by commanding subordinates, to being a political leader who must negotiate decisions as first among equals. An example was his falling out with the Meretz party, his more left-wing but also ideologically closest ally. (For a time, Barak wasn’t even on speaking terms with Yossi Sarid, then the leader of Meretz.) To be continued.