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News Analysis: Barak May Have Ushered in Era of Bad Feelings Among Supporters

July 7, 1999
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Broken promises are ultimately what cost Benjamin Netanyahu the prime ministership of Israel.

Broken hearts may be the undoing of his successor, general-turned-politician Ehud Barak.

While it is still too early to tell how Barak’s government appointments will affect the regional peace process, there were already rumblings that he was less interested in naming veteran members of his One Israel bloc to important Cabinet posts than in having those positions go to party members who would follow his own dictates.

As Barak took the oath of office, political old-timers whispered warnings that the bleeding political corpses strewn along Barak’s path to the Knesset podium might yet, like the biblical dry bones, rise anew — and seek revenge from Israel’s new leader.

For the moment, the warnings were quiet. The whisperers are not anxious to tangle with the incoming premier.

But what some viewed as Barak’s high-handed handling of his own party’s best- known and most-able politicians has been duly noted and filed away.

A day of reckoning, say the whisperers, may yet come round.

Among the salient casualties of Barak’s efforts to build a Cabinet are three men who together represent, to many Israelis and friends of Israel abroad, the promising hope of quality leadership in the future: Yossi Beilin, Shlomo Ben- Ami and Haim Ramon.

Instead of installing them in top Cabinet slots, Barak has pointedly preferred to give all three relatively minor appointments.

Barak has named Avraham Shochat head of the key Finance Ministry, the same position he held in the previous Labor government, and another long-standing loyalist, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the much-desired Communications Ministry.

Ben-Eliezer, who was housing minister in the governments of former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, will also carry the title of deputy prime minister. This is not in itself a position of politician power, but it is nevertheless a post that carries with it the political message of who has won the prime minister’s trust and confidence.

Barak’s close coterie of political aides reject any comparisons between him and the defeated Likud premier, who was perennially on bad terms with his own Cabinet ministers.

Netanyahu, they say, was famous — and eventually infamous — for misleading all around him, his own ministers included.

Barak, by contrast, has concluded 50 arduous days of coalition negotiations with a whole slew of partner-parties without incurring one single accusation of having engaged in double talk.

Nor, they insist, did he ever promise Beilin or anyone else within One Israel anything he did not deliver.

This defense is true and valid as far as it goes; but it does not address the uncomfortable feeling, spreading rapidly through One Israel and through the wider political community, that Barak is ruthless with his supporters to the point of downright cruelty — and, perhaps more significantly, to the point of political foolishness.

For seven long weeks he kept his party’s ministerial hopefuls dangling in the wind. First, he said, he had to finish negotiating with the coalition partners. But by the time he had finished, there wasn’t all that much left to be handed out in the way of Cabinet plums.

One Israel officials, sweating and embarrassed, began unceremoniously jostling up against each other in a desperate scramble for the jobs still remaining.

The media recorded their inelegant activities with amusement, incredulity – – and eventually, distaste.

As the behind-the-scenes architect of the breakthrough Oslo accords, Beilin has established an international reputation for diplomatic resourcefulness and creativity.

His contacts and friendships with key Palestinian figures and others in the wider Arab world are legion.

He would have been a natural choice for foreign minister in a government avowedly bent on resuscitating the moribund peace process.

Instead, he has been consigned to the Ministry of Justice — not an unimportant task, but one deliberately marginal to the new government’s task of forging peace.

Barak could have found no sharper way of conveying the message that Beilin, despite his past achievements and present aspirations, is not to be an intimate part of the peacemaking team.

Ben-Ami, a Moroccan-born history professor who served with distinction as Israel’s ambassador to Spain and is enormously popular in the party, had openly hoped for the Education Ministry.

Failing that, he saw himself as a suitable candidate for minister of finance. His ethnic origins and his sophisticated “New Labor” socioeconomic world view, recently outlined in a well-received book, made him, in his view at any rate, a perfect finance minister in a left-liberal government.

But he has ended up as minister of public security, which is a souped-up title for the old-style minister of police, a junior if not unimportant portfolio traditionally reserved for “ethnic” — that is Sephardi — ministers, presumably because most beat policemen are Sephardim.

Ramon, who, like Beilin, has past Cabinet experience and is considered one of One Israel’s brightest stars, has been named a minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Office responsible for Jerusalem affairs. He was also named coordinator between the government and the Knesset.

Theoretically, these nebulous titles could conceal a wealth of secret and semi- secret assignments that need fulfilling at the highest and most discreet levels of every Cabinet.

But in this appointment, too, there is an inescapable sense that Barak, far from seeking to affirm the appointee’s seniority and centrality in the new government, is seeking to marginalize him.

In addition to these three appointments, there is what has been perceived as the new premier’s disrespectful treatment of Peres, who has been named to the vaguely defined post of minister of regional cooperation.

Among Barak’s critics, what emerges from these appointments is a picture of an autocratic, supremely self-confident leader riding roughshod over the political ambitions and sensitivities of those who should form the most solid phalanx of support around him.

Some political observers trace Barak’s decisions to past altercations between him and each of the disappointed One Israel ministers.

Since the milk of human kindness is not commonly expected to course through politicians’ veins, Barak’s behavior needs to be judged in the cold terms of political expediency.

But in those terms, too, it seems short-sighted.

One Israel struck back at Barak on Monday, when the party’s Central Committee overwhelmingly balked at Barak’s nominee for the powerful post of Knesset speaker, Shalom Simchon, and voted instead for a Labor Party veteran who recently stepped down as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Avraham Burg.

This was a signal that, however large his own margin of victory was in the May elections, and however large were One Israel’s reversals in the separate vote for the Knesset — in which the party lost eight seats — Barak won’t be having it all his own way.

But, given the electoral system, which confers quasi-presidential powers on the premier, he will — for the moment, at any rate — be having most of it his way.

The rest is silence — or, at most, muted whispers.

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