Has Barak created bad blood among Labor supporters

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

JERUSALEM — As Ehud Barak took the oath of office Tuesday, Labor Party oldtimers whispered warnings that the 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 prime minister.

The rumblings focused on Barak's decision to fill important posts with loyalists who will follow his dictates.

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

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

A day of reckoning 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 pointedly preferred to give all three relatively minor appointments — justice minister, public security minister and minister without portfolio, respectively.

However, Barak named Avraham Shochat to the key position of finance minister, the same position he held in the previous Labor government, and another longstanding loyalist, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, to the much-desired post of communications minister.

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 political power, but it is nevertheless a post that carries with it the message of who has won the prime minister's trust and confidence.

Barak's close coterie of political aides rejects any comparisons between Barak and the defeated Likud premier, who was perennially on bad terms with his own cabinet ministers.

Benjamin Netanyahu, they say, was famous — and eventually infamous — for misleading everyone around him, including his own ministers.

By contrast, Barak 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, Barak's aides insist, did he ever promise Beilin or anyone else within Labor/One Israel anything he did not deliver.

That defense is true and valid as far as it goes but it does not address the uncomfortable feeling, spreading rapidly through Labor/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, Barak 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.

Labor/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 Justice Ministry — 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 to become education minister.

Failing that, he saw himself as a suitable candidate for finance minister. 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 public security minister, which is a souped-up title for the old-style police minister, a junior if not unimportant portfolio traditionally reserved for "ethnic" — that is Sephardi — ministers, presumably because most beat police officers are Sephardim.

Ramon, who like Beilin, has past cabinet experience and is considered one of Labor/One Israel's brightest stars, has been named minister without portfolio, responsible for Jerusalem affairs. He was also named coordinator between the government and the Knesset.

In addition to those 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 those 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 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.

Labor/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.

The committee instead voted in Avraham Burg, a Labor Party veteran who recently stepped down as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

This was a signal that, however large his own margin of victory was in the May elections, Barak won't be having it all his own way.

Broken promises ultimately cost Netanyahu the prime ministership of Israel. Broken hearts may be the undoing of his successor.