Baraks victory could spell undoing of Olmerts party

jerusalem | In the short term, the election of Ehud Barak as Labor Party leader could give Ehud Olmert’s ailing government a new lease on life. In the longer term, it could mark the beginning of the end for Olmert’s Kadima Party and the return of Labor and Likud as the two main actors in Israeli politics.

Barak, the 65-year-old former prime minister, won the Labor leadership Tuesday, June 12, in a second-round runoff against Ami Ayalon, 61, a first-term Knesset member with no other experience in government.

For long stretches of the campaign Ayalon, a straight-talking former navy commander and Shin Bet security services chief, held the lead and was touted as the party’s great new hope. But eventually his inexperience counted against him.

Barak won 51.2 percent of the vote to Ayalon’s 47.7 percent, with the rest of the ballots blank or spoiled. Of the party’s 103,000 members, 67,000 turned out.

In his victory speech, Barak said he would work with a talented new cadre, including Ayalon, to rebuild the party, restore faith in the national leadership and strengthen the defense forces.

Barak, a former chief of staff, is slated to replace outgoing Labor leader Amir Peretz as defense minister. He vowed to do all he could to enhance Israel’s military capacity after the blow to the Israel Defense Forces’ image in last summer’s second Lebanon War.

Barak clearly hopes to use the defense portfolio to re-establish himself as a credible candidate for prime minister. Olmert hopes that bringing in the seasoned Barak as defense minister, coupled with a wider Cabinet reshuffle, will help restore public confidence in his leadership.

But while Olmert sees an alliance with Barak as a way to retain power; Barak views such an alliance as a way to re-emerge as a major force in Israeli politics. In short, while both leaders short-term interests coincide, in the longer term they are likely to clash.

Pundits say that by mid-2008 Barak will want to trigger new elections that could return Labor to power. The pundits predict that his major rival then will not be Olmert, but Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, whom Barak defeated in 1999.

Although Barak says Olmert must go as prime minister if Labor is to stay in the government, most observers think he will not insist. Much will depend on the findings in the Winograd Commission’s full report to be published in August.

The interim report condemned how Olmert’s government handled the war against Hezbollah. Another scathing account could force Olmert to step down. But even if Olmert stays, Barak won’t be in any hurry to surrender the powerful defense portfolio he sees as his ticket to regaining the premiership he lost so ignominiously to Ariel Sharon in February 2001.

Barak modeled his campaign tactics on those employed by Sharon: playing the distant elder statesman, mainly by resisting press interviews and not saying anything substantive on any of the major issues.

In the campaign, Barak stuck to two messages: that he would make the best defense minister at a time when Israel might well be tested again, and that he is the one man able to defeat Netanyahu. He also ran a successful negative campaign, targeting Ayalon’s inexperience and portraying his political pact with the outgoing leader, the Moroccan-born Amir Peretz, as somehow tainted.

Barak’s electoral weakness was his poor record as prime minister from 1999 to 2001. But by refusing to meet the press, he was able to keep that largely out of the public eye.

Barak came to power in July 1999 on a wave of public optimism. There was a great expectation that he would have the strength to build on the Oslo peace process and bring the Israeli-Arab conflict to an end. But he failed to strike deals with the Syrians in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in January 2000, and with the Palestinians at Camp David in July.

Instead of peace, Israelis found themselves confronted with a seemingly endless wave of Palestinian terror. Barak claimed to have revealed the “true face” of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the fact that Israel had no real partner for peace. Critics accused him of failing to exploit a great opportunity to change Israel’s regional status.

After losing to Sharon by a landslide in January 2001, Barak left politics for business. Many Israelis resented the use of his experience as prime minister to get rich. Others could not forgive his arrogance as prime minister and his perceived political ineptitude.

Just one year ago, Barak was seen as one of the most hated people in Israeli public life. The former prime minister had seemed so down and out in Israeli politics, Ha’aretz political analyst Yossi Verter hailed his victory this week as “not just another political comeback” but as a truly miraculous “raising of the dead.”

Barak started his campaign for Labor leader well behind Ayalon and several other candidates. His newly reinvented persona as a more mature and humble figure with strong defense credentials turned the tables.