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Barak’s second resignation paves way for unity

JERUSALEM, Feb. 21 (JTA) – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s second resignation appears to be his final zigzag – at least for the foreseeable future.

Two weeks after his whopping electoral defeat at the hands of Likud leader Ariel Sharon, Barak, the Labor Party’s leader, reversed his reversal of his election night resignation by informing Sharon that he would not serve as defense minister in a unity government but would indeed resign.

Political observers say the move could ease Labor’s way into a unity government under Sharon, though the party will now enter a hectic period as it prepares to elect a new leader.

Several important Labor figures who support a unity government had threatened to vote against the move if Barak was involved.

On Wednesday, Sharon pressed ahead with his efforts to form a unity government.

“If the Labor Party decides it has different candidates for the same posts offered it, then there are no problems,” Likud Knesset member Reuven Rivlin told Israel Army Radio. “The Likud is not talking about people but about the idea and the issue, and the issue is unity.”

Sharon on Wednesday offered the defense ministry to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, according to Israeli media. A Labor dove, Peres had been considered a lock for foreign minister if Barak took the defense portfolio.

Peres neither accepted the offer nor rejected it out of hand, Army Radio reported.

Labor officials criticized Sharon for approaching Peres, calling it meddling in party affairs. At the same time, Labor Party Secretary-General Ra’anan Cohen suggested that Sharon give the party the finance portfolio instead of defense.

As part of the coalition negotiations, Sharon offered Labor two out of the three senior portfolios – foreign affairs, finance and defense – and five smaller portfolios.

Three leading Labor politicians with extensive military backgrounds – Communications Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh and Science Minister Matan Vilnai – said they covet the defense post.

In a bitter letter Tuesday night, Barak accused Sharon of failing to live up to his own pledge that the two would collaborate in a unity government in a spirit of mutual trust. That spirit had been shattered, Barak said, because Sharon had made clear that he expected to decide policy autocratically and keep Labor out of core decision making.

Barak referred obliquely to Sharon’s determination to bring far-right politicians into his government, in defiance of Barak’s demand that these groups be kept out if Labor joins.

However, political observers say the main reason Barak decided to quit was the mounting wave of revulsion – in Labor and the country at large – when he backtracked from his election-night resignation.

During his term, Barak was accused of constant policy shifts that undermined his credibility.

Just days after announcing his resignation on Feb. 6, Barak insisted on running Labor’s unity negotiations with Likud. It soon emerged that Barak intended to lead Labor into the unity government and take the No. 2 spot of defense minister.

Barak argued that the move was mandated by the national interest, even though his own personal and political interests would be better served by retiring from political life for now.

Open rebellion soon erupted in Labor. Major party figures spoke out publicly and harshly against Barak’s “zigzagging.”

Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote to Barak and accused him of unethical behavior that prejudiced the fundamental morality of the Israeli political process.

Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, one of Barak’s closest friends in politics, wrote him an open letter demanding that he immediately implement his resignation.

An influential liberal, political scientist Shlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University, went on television to add his voice to the growing chorus of Barak critics.

Significantly, the critics came from both the pro- and anti-unity camps within Labor.

Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, who favors the unity option, urged Barak to step down.

Interior Minister Haim Ramon, who also favors unity, went to Sharon’s ranch in the Negev to state that he would only join a unity government if it didn’t include Barak.

In a second letter Tuesday night sent to Secretary-General Cohen, Barak announced his resignation as party leader and lashed out at his Labor critics.

Ramon, who had been one of Barak’s closest allies, blasted the premier on Wednesday for his ungainly exit, describing Barak’s letter to the party as “a profane crank letter” characteristic of “a low-level political hack.”

Senior Labor Party officials were meeting Wednesday night to discuss the implications of Barak’s decision and come up with an initial list of candidates for cabinet posts should a unity government be formed. The list will be presented to the party’s Central Committee.

The committee had been slated to meet this week but Barak postponed the session, realizing that it was shaping up as an impeachment session against him.

Barak began working the phones furiously, speaking with individual committee members and explaining to them why the country needed him as defense minister in these troubled times. Barak also met with groups of committee members to make the same pitch.

“If only he had talked to us like this when he was premier, perhaps he would still be premier,” one member noted wryly on television, alluding to what many have described as Barak’s perfunctory and high-handed attitude to party activists during his tenure.

On Tuesday, the beleaguered Barak closeted himself with his closest political advisers, and by late evening it was clear a resignation was in the works. The letter to Sharon was released close to midnight, and a resignation from the Labor leadership followed soon after.

In his letter to Sharon, Barak wrote that he still favors the unity option in principle, provided that a way can be found to collaborate in making policy. Labor’s central committee is likely to endorse the party’s entry into a unity government if acceptable terms can be negotiated.

However, Labor Knesset member Weizman Shiri pledged Wednesday that he and other Barak loyalists would do all they could to foil a unity government or, failing that, to prevent party members who felled Barak from serving as ministers.

In addition, key figures in Labor’s dovish wing, including Justice Minister Yossi Beilin and Ben-Ami, are opposed to a unity government. They argue that Labor would serve as little more than a fig leaf for Sharon’s allegedly anti-peace policies.

Labor’s participation in the government, they say, would blur the distinction between the two large parties and weaken Labor’s ability to make its case to the voters in the next election.

They further argue that leftist voters would abandon Labor for the more dovish Meretz Party, which has declined Sharon’s invitation to join a unity government.

As to the leadership battle, Burg and Ben-Eliezer have already declared, while Ramon and Ben-Ami are weighing their prospects.

Media commentary generally viewed Barak’s resignation as long overdue. Ma’ariv newspaper commentator Chemi Shalev said that with his decision to resign, Barak had saved a shred of his dignity.

Barak’s long-term future remains unclear. Other Israeli politicians who have resigned in disgrace – such as former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or even Sharon himself – have found that the public soon forgets their failings, and clamors to have them back.

(JTA Correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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