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With Labor Still Seeking a Leader, Barak Begins to Plot a Comeback

June 1, 2004
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With the Likud Party threatening to tear itself apart over Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” plan and pundits predicting new elections, new coalitions and even new political alignments, this should be a field day for the opposition Labor Party. But the chaos in Likud is highlighting Labor’s biggest problem: The lack of a credible candidate for prime minister.

As buoyant Labor supporters left a huge mid-May demonstration in Tel Aviv in favor of withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, the same refrain could be heard over and over: “We have flexed our political muscle,” Labor people said, “but who is there that can lead us back to power?”

Labor’s caretaker leader, Shimon Peres, will turn 81 in August and generally is considered too old to be prime minister. None of the luminaries around him seems an obvious choice to lead the party.

That could set the stage for the re-emergence of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Despite what is seen as Barak’s colossal failure as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, and his subsequent retirement from politics, Labor’s leadership vacuum has led Barak to consider a political comeback.

But it won’t be easy: There is a groundswell of resentment against Barak in the party and in the general public. His chances also depend on political developments over the next few weeks and months.

Still, more and more Labor people are saying that Barak at least showed leadership in office — and, they add, there’s no one else.

“You’ll come back,” Knesset member Eitan Cabel reportedly told Barak, “not because you were so great, but because there is a leadership drought.”

Barak has been toying with the comeback idea for several months. After losing by a landslide to Sharon in February 2001 elections, he took what he described as a “time-out” from politics, intimating that he would be back.

Last October, Barak declared that he would “announce his plans after the High Holidays.” At the time, conditions for a dramatic return seemed good: The peace process was stymied by the collapse of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ government, and Sharon seemed uncertain where to go next.

Barak proposed unilateral disengagement and withdrawal behind a security fence, with a plan for peacemaking with the Palestinians when they were ready.

That might have been an excellent ticket for a comeback — but, at much the same time, Sharon and his deputy, Ehud Olmert, came out with a disengagement plan of their own.

Barak suffered a second setback in early February when Labor voted to extend Peres’ temporary chairmanship to December 2005, rather than hold a new leadership race in June 2004.

Nevertheless, in mid-May, as Sharon again seemed to be running into political trouble, Barak met with a group of loyalists and told them his return to politics was “only a matter of timing.”

The political correspondent for the Ha’aretz newspaper, Yossi Verter, reported that Barak argued that all those who had tried to lead the party after him — Avraham Burg, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Amram Mitzna and Haim Ramon — had failed, that Peres was too old and that, in the end, Labor would turn to him.

Barak reportedly told his supporters that he would win back disaffected left-wingers through a public relations blitz and would build a support group for his leadership campaign outside the party, similar to the Aleph, Aleph, Aleph group that built support for Barak’s successful prime ministerial run against Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1999.

Indeed, Barak predicts that the next election for prime minister will again pit him and Netanyahu, and he is convinced he can win again.

Barak’s aspirations could have been cut short by allegations of impropriety in his 1999 election financing and claims that, as prime minister, he bore ultimate responsibility for police excesses that led to the death of 13 Israeli Arabs during pro-Palestinian riots in October 2000. In both cases, however, he was cleared of any wrongdoing.

Still, Barak faces an uphill struggle. Many blame him for mismanaging negotiations with the Syrians and Palestinians as prime minister, alienating Israeli Arabs and bringing the Labor Party to its lowest ebb. Separation from his popular wife Nava, the building and selling of an ostentatious home and his highflying moneymaking ventures since leaving office have further alienated him from his potential electorate.

Unlike Netanyahu — who also took a brief break from politics but later returned as a major player in the Likud, though not yet as party leader — Barak does not have a strong party base.

Many Labor colleagues accuse Barak of arrogance and bear personal grievances against him. Party heavyweights like Burg, Peres and Ramon have vowed to do all they can to block Barak’s return.

Ramon has gone on record as saying that if Barak does try to come back, Ramon would destroy him politically. Even former supporters like Matan Vilnai and Ephraim Sneh now see themselves as leadership candidates, and have no interest in backing Barak.

Some Labor aspirants suspect Peres of maneuvering to further extend his term as interim party leader. They believe Labor’s late May merger with the One Nation Party of Amir Peretz, secretary general of the Histadrut labor union federation, was another Peres ploy to remain at Labor’s helm.

They suspect that Peres plans to use One Nation’s votes in the party’s Central Committee to hang onto power until the next elections, and then return the favor by helping Peretz succeed him as leader.

Much will depend on political developments, of course. If Peres joins a Sharon-led coalition that withdraws Israeli settlements and troops from Gaza, there would be little point in Barak making a comeback. The same is true if Sharon, Peres and Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, leader of the centrist Shinui Party, form a coalition to run in early elections.

But if Sharon stumbles on, or if Netanyahu takes over and fails to take the process with the Palestinians forward, conditions would be ideal for Barak to return as a potential national savior.

There seems little doubt that Barak wants to make a political comeback, but he would have to pick his moment very carefully to succeed. Given the antipathy toward him in Labor and the fast-moving political events, that moment may not come — and Labor may have to find another solution for its leadership vacuum.

(Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.)

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