Barak Unmasked

In an unusual scandal even for cynical Israeli politics, "Defense" Minister Ehud Barak, together with a four other rather anonymous Knesset members, left the party officially named "Labor under the leadership of Ehud Barak" and turned into a satellite faction, ironically called "Independence," of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.

In this case, as all along Barak’s public career, analysts tend to overemphasize the personal aspect of Barak’s treacherous conduct: with his leadership threatened within Labor, Barak feared his party might force him to leave the coalition and lose his post as minister of defense I’d like to claim that Barak’s latest move, as so many of his previous ones, can be better interpreted as a political statement motivated by his far-right militaristic, pro-occupation conviction. 

Breaking the Peace Camp

Ever since he entered politics, I have considered Barak to be one of the most dangerous politicians in the Middle East. His greatest achievement was, in the year 2000, the destruction of the Israeli peace camp, from which the Israeli left has not yet recovered. Traditionally, the Israeli right-wing’s position has been: "We don’t trust the Arabs (or Palestinians, Gentiles, anti-Semites), so we cannot make peace with them," whereas the left-wing was ready to take risks (specifically, withdrawal for occupied land) in order to try the option of peace.

Barak was elected Prime Minister in 1999 by the Israeli peace camp. But the professional warrior and former chief of staff was in fact a far-right Trojan horse within the Israeli left. The fact that he had consistently opposed the Oslo Process was silenced and forgotten, so that his rapid termination of that Process with the bloody Intifada in 2000 could be portrayed as a great surprise, not as a premeditated plan, and blamed on the Palestinians. For home and global consumption, Barak invented the legend that he generously offered the Palestinians to end the occupation, but that they refused. This lie was propagated by the uncritical Israeli media, and conceived as a true story – as if Barak had really offered to end the occupation; And then as a true history – as if Barak had actually ended the occupation. The Israeli left – deranged by the betrayal of its own leader and overwhelmed by the horrors of the Intifada – behaved as if Barak had actually withdrawn from the Palestinian Territories and dismantled the settlements, but the Palestinians in return had denied Israel’s right to exist and reacted with ruthless violence, proving the right-wing’s thesis. Under Barak as leader of the Peace Camp, then, the Israeli Peace Camp surrendered to the right-wing ideology, and dissolved. 

Passing the Torch to Sharon

Barak having led his own voters to ideological bankruptcy, the victory of the right-wing was all but predictable. Why should anyone vote for the left, when even its leader says the right is right? Barak’s nightmare, however, was not to lose the elections, but to be succeeded by a non-militaristic prime minister like Netanyahu, who might have shown some pragmatism and yielded to outside pressure to return to a peace process, or at least put an end to the bloodshed. Barak therefore resigned from his office as prime minister in a tricky timing and manner that blocked Netanyahu’s way back to power, paving the way for the expected land-slide victory of his "ideological opposite" (but in fact, close friend and ideological mentor) Sharon in 2001, who could be trusted to inflame the Intifada even further and stick to Israel’s rejectionism. Barak in fact sacrificed his position in order to make sure that the godfather of Israeli colonialism returned to power, and not Netanyahu, who had not been an army general and therefore could not be trusted.

As long as Sharon was in power, Barak could sleep well: the danger of ending the occupation was off the table. Indeed Barak used the bloody years after his defeat to make money, exploiting his contacts with the "security" business worldwide. It was then that the former (and future) leader of Israel’s social-democratic party purchased and moved to a $2.5 million luxury apartment in Tel-Aviv, taken care of by an illegally employed Philippine migrant worker.

In January 2006, however, Sharon slipped into coma. Ehud Olmert, not a member of the militaristic junta, became prime minister. Barak must have been alarmed, and returned almost immediately to the political arena. It took him a year and a half to become Olmert’s defense minister. 

Netanyahu’s Right Hand

In the general elections of February 2009, Barak led Labor to an unprecedented defeat. With just 13 seats in the Knesset, the party that created the State of Israel and ruled it for three decades won less than half the number of seats of Kadima or of the Likud, and even lagged behind Lieberman’s party. Barak courageously took responsibility for his historic defeat, and said he now would serve the nation from the opposition.

He changed his mind the next day, of course, and started coalition talks. Cards were still open, with Kadima’s Livni and Likud’s Netanyahu both in a position to form the government – Livni with a center-to-moderate-right-wing coalition, Netanyahu with a far-right one. Again, the leader of Labor followed his political conviction. By raising unreasonable demands and playing on time, he ensured Livni would not be prime minister. He then ran into Netanyahu’s far-right coalition as defense minister, to make sure his natural allies – the right-wing prime minister and his fascist deputy Lieberman – do the (far) right thing. Barak joined them in spite of severe opposition within his own Labor party, which he ignored in his typically anti-democratic manner, sowing the seeds for the present split.

Barak’s excuse for joining the far-right coalition was to balance Lieberman and "pull Netanyahu to the left." At this stage in Barak’s career, one had to be extremely naïve or totally uninformed to trust his alleged commitment to any peace process. Such extreme naivete and/or total uninformedness were found – in Obama’s administration. It took the American president, his secretary of state Clinton, and their advisors almost two years to reach the conclusion which was obvious from the very outset, namely that:

for more than a year and a half Barak misled them about his persuasive powers with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the peace process. […] "We put all our money on him a year and a half ago," the Israeli official quoted his U.S. colleague as saying. "The entire administration bet on Barak because he said he could nudge Netanyahu toward an agreement with the Palestinians, but he deceived us and led us down the garden path." […] "He charmed us with his intelligent analyses; the president listened to Barak like a student with his teacher and trusted him, but he didn’t meet any of his promises over the peace process and the building freeze," the official told the Israeli; […] "in shock …. I almost burst into tears." (Ha’aretz, 2nd January 2011)

Barak deceiving?! What a surprise. Indeed, even the U.S. official admitted that

Barak’s disappointing behavior evoked a sense of deja vu in Washington, especially at the State Department, recalling his failures as prime minister in the peace talks at Shepherdstown and Camp David.

Like the old joke about the benefit of dementia – you meet new people all the time. 

Open Defiance?

The fact that Washington finally unmasked Barak as a man of war and deceit, not as the man of peace he pretends to be, might be a central reason for his political step. By leaving Labor, Barak boosted Netanyahu’s coalition, which became smaller but stronger: Barak’s small fraction is now personally loyal to its leader, who in turn is dependent on Netanyahu, and is likely to join the Likud in future. Barak’s "new" political line was made obvious in his departure speech, in which he accused the remaining Labor party of "a drift to the left and even farther left," of "post-modernism" and "post-Zionism." Obviously, Barak is heading on to the far, far right.

This may be a sign of policy change. Unmasked by Washington, Barak will no longer play the phony man-of-peace, but strengthen the far-right/fascist government in its open defiance towards the US and the rest of the international community. Netanyahu already used Barak’s step to entrench even further in his rejectionism; he did this by explaining that thanks to the moderate Labor ministers the Palestinians stiffened their demands; now that those ministers were gone – they all resigned after Barak left Labor – the Palestinians would be obliged to soften their positions, and the peace process would be back on track, Netanyahu predicted. Sure thing.

The unmasked Barak may now help Netanyahu and Lieberman to turn Israel into a rogue state, which is openly defying the US, the UN, and the international community. In the long run, this might be in the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians alike. In the short run, it’s likely to lead to a catastrophe. Not surprisingly, predictions of a coming war with Lebanon and Syria are already in the air. 

Author: Ran HaCohen

Dr. Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in computer science, an M.A. in comparative literature, and a Ph.D. in Jewish studies. He is a university teacher in Israel. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English, and Dutch). HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter From Israel" appears occasionally at